While excavating a bunch of ancient ruins in Mexico, archaeologists unearthed a treasure trove of old clichés about pre-colonial America: bloody sacrifices, skinned humans, epic sculptures of gods, and volcanic rock skulls.
A team from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have now verified the first known temple dedicated to Xipe Tótec, a highly important pre-Hispanic god, near Ndachjian-Tehuacán in the central state of Puebla.
Xipe Tótec is among the earliest known pre-Hispanic deities, but he was also worshipped by many other cultures through most of Mesoamerican right up until the Spanish conquest of the Americas, including the infamous Aztecs. He was most often venerated as the god of spring, rebirth, liberation, vegetation, and agriculture.
Ancient Popoloca people worshipped the god through a festival known as Tlacaxipehualiztli, which translates from Nahuatl to mean “the skinning/flaying of men.” Their myths told a story about how Xipe Tótec would flay himself and place his skin across the Earth every springtime, replenishing the ground with new life and vegetation. As such, the skinning of humans came to symbolize rebirth and the renewal of the seasons.
Around two circular altars at the temple, priests would sacrifice an unlucky individual, skin them, and then don their skins. The researchers are fairly certain this grisly practice took place in the temple based on sculptures found within the complex. First of all, the temple dates to between 1000 and 1260 CE, a time when other sources show sacrificial rituals took place at similar sites. Also, the sculptures appear to personify Xipe Tótec himself, represented by two "skinned" skulls and a torso covered with sacrificial skin.
The sculptures are carved out of volcanic rock, possible rhyolite, which isn't naturally found in the region. This suggests that the material was imported from elsewhere in Central America. Unusually, the sculpture depicting Xipe Tótec has a skirt of feathers, not often seen on pre-Hispanic deities. It also has a right hand hanging from the left arm thought to represent the hand of a sacrificed person.
"Sculpturally it is a very beautiful piece. It measures approximately 80 centimeters high and has a hole in the belly that was used, according to the sources, to place a green stone and 'endow them with life' for the ceremonies," archaeologist Luis Alberto Guerrero said in a statement.
The skulls are around 70 centimeters (27.5 inches) tall and weigh about 200 kilograms (440 pounds). It is thought they were used to cover the holes in the ground in front of the alters, where the human sacrifices skin would be placed, after being worn by the priests.
The rest of the temple site is yet to be explored but they are hoping to find more evidence of this grim but fascinating practice.