Archaeologists Reveal Story Of Cannibalism And Revenge From The Conquest Of Mexico

Bones discovered in the town of Tecoaque dating to the 16th century. Photo courtesy of Melitón Tapia/INAH

Fresh archeological discoveries have revealed an especially bloody story from the Spanish colonization of Mexico.

Among the ruins of Tecoaque, an Aztec-allied town, archeologists discovered the remains of women and children who appear to have been slaughtered and mutilated by Spanish colonialists. However, they suspect that this wasn’t just a random act of violence but a gesture of revenge in response to a catastrophe that occurred several months earlier. 

In 1520, the town of Tecoaque sacrificed and cannibalized around 450 people, including Spanish men, women, and children, and dozens of foot soldiers from a mix of indigenous cultures. Their flesh was eaten and many of their bones were carved into trophies. When Hernán Cortés, one of the leading Spanish Conquistadors, heard about this slaughter, he ordered Gonzalo de Sandoval to seek a violent reprisal in early 1521.

This story was recently pieced together by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INHA) using new archeological evidence and historical accounts, such as True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Third Letter of Relationship by Hernán Cortés. The recent excavations at Tecoaque — which means “the place where they ate them” in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs — has revealed over 25,000 artifacts and the investigations are ongoing.

It appears that the population of the town sharply increased after they had captured the sacrifices, most likely as people from the surrounding area had flooded in to participate in the sacrificial ceremonies. The excavations also show that Tecoaque started to fortify itself around this time by building walls around the town.

Enrique Martínez Vargas, an archeologist from the INHA, says this suggests the inhabitants of Tecoaque knew a counter-attack was on the horizon. Unfortunately for them, their defenses were no match for de Sandoval’s forces. 

“Some warriors who were staying in the town managed to flee, but women and children remained, who were the main victims,” Vargas explained in a press release

“A 120-meter stretch of the road verifies this, with the discovery of a dozen skeletons of female individuals who appear to have been 'protecting' the remains of ten infants between five and six years of age,” he added.“The women and children who were kept safe in their rooms, were in turn mutilated, as evidenced by the recovery of severed bones on the floor of the rooms. The temples were also burned and the sculptures of gods, beheaded; This is how this site was destroyed, which represented a resistance for Cortés,” Vargas continues.

Later that year, in August 1521, the leader of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán had been captured and Aztec Empire was crushed. Mexico had fallen to Cortés and became part of the Spanish Empire.

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