Skull tower and skull rack offer evidence of Aztec human sacrifice in early Mexico City

Skull tower and skull rack offer evidence of Aztec human sacrifice in early Mexico City
Credit: 1587 Aztec Manuscript, The Codex Tovar/Wikimedia Commons

A team of researchers has uncovered what they describe as a skull rack—a basketball court length wall of skulls with poles passed through them—in Mexico City. Lizzie Wade, with ScienceMag, outlines the work being done by a team from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Three years ago, the researchers uncovered what has been described as a skull tower—a circular tower built using skulls held together with mortar. The tower was found to be part of a trophy rack area that more recently, the researchers found, includes a skull rack.

The skull rack was found to be approximately 35 meters in length and approximately five meters high. It once consisted of wood posts at either end with smaller posts spaced every few meters between them. Wooden poles stretched horizontally between the posts. It would have looked like a high wooden fence. But it was used instead to hold human skulls—each had holes bored on either side to allow for sliding them onto a pole, like beads on an abacus. The wood was decayed, of course, but evidence found at the site allowed the team to piece together the original structure, along with the skulls. The researchers note that such a rack was believed to exist due to writings by Spanish explorers—they called it the tzompantli.

The researchers believe both the tower and rack were part of human sacrifice rituals, carried out to preserve the Aztec way of life. The dig site is located at Tenochtitlan, the center of an Aztec civilization, in a part of what is now modern Mexico City. The Mexica people lived there from approximately the 14th to the 16th centuries. When Spanish explorers arrived, they found the native people and their practices barbaric and knocked down many of their structures and covered over others.

As the excavations have continued, the team has been finding clues regarding the makeup of the entire area, which is believed to have been a temple. They now believe that the has a twin nearby, but have yet to find it. They plan to continue excavating and to further study the skulls and other artifacts to learn more about the culture of the people who lived there, including those who were sacrificed.

Explore further

Mexico finds 'main' skull rack at Aztec temple complex

More information: Lizzie Wade. Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital, Science (2018). DOI: 10.1126/science.aau5404
Journal information: Science

© 2018

Citation: Skull tower and skull rack offer evidence of Aztec human sacrifice in early Mexico City (2018, June 28) retrieved 14 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jun 28, 2018
The noble savage?

Jun 28, 2018
One of the more draconian ways of dealing with overpopulation - industrial-scale human sacrifice. In the name of some god, which makes it honorable.

In China they built walls thousands of miles long with bodies every few feet.

In Germany they engineered a 30-year war which reduced the population by 1/3.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Jun 28, 2018
"And desperation is the evil-stepmother of atrocity!"

Jun 29, 2018
Can anyone blame Spaniards
"Arnaud-Amaury, the Cistercian abbot-commander, is supposed to have been asked how to tell Cathars from Catholics. His reply, recalled by Caesarius of Heisterbach, a fellow Cistercian, thirty years later was "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius"—"Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own"... Arnaud-Amaury wrote to Pope Innocent III, "Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex."

-Can anyone blame normal, decent people for hating all religionists for the things they are capable of?

"At the time of the genocide, Seromba was priest of a Catholic parish at Nyange in the Kibuye province of western Rwanda. He was charged with the deaths of around 2,000 Tutsis who took refuge in his parish church. According to the charges brought against him, Seromba ordered his church to be bulldozed on April 6 1994, and then shot some survivors."

Jun 29, 2018
It is noticeable that many avoid the history of Tutsi enslavement of the Hutu. Once the Hutu had modern weaponry? They exploded into taking revenge upon their former masters.

After all, is this not the intent for the "Right to Bear Arms"? (Which was originally intended as a means to defend states rights.)

Today interpreted to mean that a Free People have the privilege to defend themselves, their property and their own personal criminal activities from competing criminal activities and intrusion by government regulatory authorities.

Causation for The Law of Unintended Consequences. When in turn, those victimized for centuries, rise up against their oppressors. Claiming that a history of oppression justifies retaliation.

Religion, ideology, stratification of a society are just the excuses people use to commit violence.

Jun 30, 2018
It could've continued, or there could've been bloody revolution and enlightenment . We only know what happened when the Spanish arrived. After all, the Aztecs had a fairly complex, if completely stratified civilzation, and Europeans also had a history of human sacrifice. (Even if we're not counting genicide in the name of a god as human sacrifice, which frankly, I think is the same sort of behavior with a different aesthetic. )

But even if it were argued that the Aztecs and the Spanish deserved each other, the other kingdoms that were hoping to use the Spanish to get out from under the Aztecs' dominion got a raw deal.

Jun 30, 2018
I am the 'good' guy
you are the 'tolerable' guy
we are the 'righteous' guys

they are the 'bad' guys
those are all the 'intolerable' 'evil' guys

Jun 30, 2018
Tutsi enslavement of the Hutu. Once the Hutu had modern weaponry? They exploded into taking revenge upon their former masters
The Hutu were the govt you moron.

"a genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority government... planned by members of the core political elite, many of whom occupied positions at top levels of the national government. Perpetrators came from the ranks of the Rwandan army, the Gendarmerie, government-backed militias"

-The distinction was a totally artificial one:

"the Hutu and Tutsi distinction arose later and was not a racial one, but principally a class or caste distinction in which the Tutsi herded cattle while the Hutu farmed the land.[18][19] The Hutu, Tutsi and Twa of Rwanda share a common language and are collectively known as the Banyarwanda."

-and it was created by euro occupiers:

"In 1935, Belgium introduced identity cards labelling each individual as either Tutsi, Hutu, Twa or Naturalised"

Jun 30, 2018
If Euros haven't civilized to the level of being able to discover Americas, the atrocity here could have continued
Violence is a result of overpopulation. As pops swell, the people will blame whoever is in charge for their misery no matter how benevolent or well-meaning those rulers might be.

How govts deal with overpop and the threat it poses vary considerably. But the one thing they need to accept is that overpop is INEVITABLE and unless they deal with it proactively it will invariably lead to their downfall, the destruction of their cultures, and a precipitous drop in pop numbers through civil war, starvation, and massive displacement.

Aztecs learned (were taught) to deal with overpop through ritual warfare, huge public works projects, and mass sacrifice.

Rwandans were divided up and set against one another in a very controlled and manageable fashion.

These are just a few of the many strategies Leaders have employed to maintain overall stability and progress.

Jun 30, 2018
Re: Aztec cruelty: The Aztec would have been defeated by neighboring peoples eventually. The Spanish replaced Aztec cruelty and domination with Spanish cruelty and domination.

Climate change, rather than overpopulation, may be a more likely explanation for the actions of the Aztecs. The rains stop, the water runs out, so the Water God(s) have to be propitiated through blood sacrifice, etc.
The Spanish of that era, in order to propitiate their Judaeo-Christian God and enforce doctrinal orthodoxy, were torturing and killing thousands of women for "having sex with the devil" and jews for - being jewish. Who were the true barbarians?

Jun 30, 2018
The rains stop, the water runs out, and suddenly there are far too many unhappy people blaming their rulers for their misery. But by then it is far too late to save the empire.

Pharoah has a dream and calls for Joseph to explain it to him. Joseph says his dream means there will be 7 years of feast followed by 7 years of famine. So Joseph and pharoah build granaries and begin storing grain.

And when famine hits, as it always does, Joseph and pharoah begin selling their grain. And shortly thereafter they own everything of value in egypt.

Growth, decay, collapse, and rebirth - the 4 stages of an economic cycle. When times are good, people make babies. Resources become scarce, escalation ensues, collapse inevitably follows.

It does not take a god to explain the inevitable. Only some data on resource distribution and a little sober reflection.

And no, Aztec weren't going to be conquered by their neighbors. Those empires were specifically designed to be conquered by euros.

Jun 30, 2018
Malthus was only revealing what Leaders had known for millenia. Accepting the inevitable and accommodating it, is the only reason we are still here.

The rothschilds became rich because they knew the outcome of a war before anyone else. Imagine the kind of power that could be accrued if one were able to stage wars and predetermine their outcomes.

The key is to make sure that the leaders of both sides of a conflict, are in fact on the same side.

The mob does it all the time. They dont want to appear in court unless the judge is in their pocket.

Throughout the middle ages the rulers of all the dynasties throughout europe were all related, all able to trace their lineage back to charlemagne. Some did not even speak the language of the people they ruled over.

Europe was divided up and the people set against each other in very orderly and predictable ways, maintaining overall stability and ensuring progress.

It was as if a single crime family controlled an entire continent.

Jul 01, 2018
Wow, otto, you start with almost reasonable points. Then you keep digging until you hit the motherlode of batshit crazy!

I am in awe!

Jul 04, 2018
Hmmm . . . We'll have to agree to disagree about the Aztecs being conquered by neighbors. If sufficiently weakened through drought or other climate catastrophe, most groups/tribes/nations can be overcome. Not to mention contracting disease by consuming human body parts, fluids, etc. and going completely nuts . . .

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more