31 December 2007

Mexica Human Sacrifice 1487

Four-Day Slaughter: 80,400 Killed

After enlarging the Great Temple with shrines to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc in 1487, Mexica priests slaughtered an unprecedented number of victims over four days at the behest of Ahuitzotl, the Aztec king. Reports to the Spanish after their conquest of Tenochtitlán and passed along in letters to Emperor Charles V place the number of dead during this ceremony as high as 80,400. Victor Davis Hanson observes in Carnage and Culture (2001) that the “killing rate of fourteen victims a minute over the ninety-six-hour bloodbath far exceeded the daily murder record at either Auschwitz or Dachau” (195).

In A Patriot’s History of the United States (2004), Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen pass along this 80,400 figure without a note of skepticism.

[I]t was sacrifice, not science, that defined Aztec society, whose pyramids, after all, were execution sites. A four-day sacrifice in 1487 by the Aztec king Ahuitzotl involved the butchery of 80,400 prisoners by shifts of priests working four at a time at convex killing tables who kicked lifeless, heartless bodies down the side of the pyramid temple. This worked out to a “killing rate of fourteen victims a minute over the ninety-six-hour bloodbath.”
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 5.

They document this quote of the killing rate as reported by Hanson with the first of several references to Carnage and Culture in A Patriot’s History. Indeed, over the next several pages, Hanson’s book appears as the principal source for their central argument regarding the reasons for the success of the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica. Although the authors of A Patriot’s History pronounce this estimate of the number of sacrificial victims without qualification, Hanson exhibits some reservation through use of the adverb “purportedly”:

Ahuitzotl purportedly organized the butchery of 80,400 prisoners during a four-day blood sacrifice at the 1487 inauguration of the Great Temple to Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlán—an enormous challenge in industrialized murder in its own right.
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 194-195.

Schweikart and Allen’s uncritical acceptance of this 80,400 figure in Hanson is noteworthy in light of other numbers in his book that they reject. In particular, A Patriot’s History gives 100,000 as the number of Aztec dead during the 1521 victory of Cortés in the conquest of Tenochtitlán, “many from disease resulting from Cortés’s cutting the city’s water supply” (6). In the depopulation sidebar that interrupts their narrative of the conquest of Mesoamerica, they suggest that in North America there were “800,000 Indians who died from disease and firearms” (8). They do not offer an estimate of the dead in Mesoamerica beyond the 100,000. Such figures seem to offer a striking contrast to the tally in Hanson’s Carnage and Culture. Hanson mentions the 100,000 as an estimate in Tenochtitlán itself during the summer of 1521, and continues:

But that was a small percentage of the actual losses in the two-year struggle for Mexico City. Disease, hunger, and constant fighting had essentially wiped out the population of Tenochtitlán. The final tally of the dead would eventually reach more than 1 million of the people surrounding Lake Texcoco.
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 193.

Estimating the Dead in 1487

One of several principal sources informing Hanson’s chapter on Tenochtitlán in Carnage and Culture is Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1993). Thomas buries the 80,400 figure in a discursive footnote, where it is attributed to Motolinía, also called Friar Toribio de Benavente. In addition according to Thomas, Fr. Diego Durán, Historia de las Indias de Nueva España (1867 and 1880) “has much the same number, on what he implies was the authority of what is now called the Crónica X” (646). Drawing on a range of primary and secondary sources, Thomas presents several other figures for this one ceremony and for the annual totals, including Sherburne Cook’s estimate of 11,520 based on two minutes per victim over four days. The text of Conquest is cautious:

The innumerable prisoners who died on fourteen pyramids over four days, with long lines of victims stretching from the site of the temple in four directions, as far as the eye could see, at a festival in 1487 to mark the inauguration of the new temple to Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlán, had no precedent. No evidence exists which enables anything more than a good guess.
Thomas, Conquest, 25.

Between 11,520 and 80,400, Schweikart and Allen might have suggested that estimates of the dead during one four-day ceremony in 1487 reveal a plus or minus reliability factor of nearly 700 per cent. They argue against “overestimates of millions” based on the 400 per cent variation in estimates for the population of the Inka (Inca) in Peru ranging from 4 to 15 million. It seems odd that their skepticism regarding the extent of aboriginal depopulation due to disease does not extend to skepticism regarding Spanish reports of the brutality of Aztec sacrifices four decades before they arrived.

Another View of Aztec Sacrifices

Charles C. Mann does not mention this event in 1487. In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, he does observe, “[h]uman sacrifice is such a charged subject that its practice by the Triple Alliance [the Aztec Empire] has inevitably become shrouded in myths” (133). One myth he identifies is that “post-conquest accounts of public death-spectacles are all racist lies” (133), noting that Mexica art depicts such sacrifices enough that there should be no doubt. Mann identifies a contrasting myth, “that in its appetite for death as spectacle the Triple Alliance was fundamentally different from Europe” (133). Seizing upon Cortés’s own estimate that the Aztecs sacrificed three to four thousand per year, on the one hand, and scholarly estimates of seventy-five thousand public executions in England between 1530 and 1630, on the other, he offers a comparison.

At the time, [England’s] population was about three million, perhaps a tenth that of the Mexica empire. Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England, according to [Fernand] Braudel.
Mann, 1491, 134.

Mann’s assertion deserves scrutiny for his assumption that a larger population would have an equivalent proportion of candidates for execution. Moreover, his arithmetic relies on a rough estimate of Mesoamerica’s population twenty percent greater than the twenty-five million estimate of Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Wilson Borah (see citation at "Population and Demography"). But even a much larger margin of error does not negate his point that the spectacle of killing in Mesoamerica was not foreign to European conquistadors and colonists. Indeed, Mann’s statement is not altogether inconsistent with Hanson’s assertion early in his book.

I am not interested here in whether European military culture is morally superior to, or far more wretched than, that of the non-West. The conquistadors, who put an end to human sacrifice and torture on the Great Pyramid in Mexico City, sailed from a society reeling from the Grand Inquisition and the ferocious Reconquista, and left a diseased and nearly ruined New World in their wake.
Hanson, Carnage and Culture, 6.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this very informative article. I am a researcher on this subject, and the numbers discrepancy over Aztec sacrifice is tricky to follow. Thank you for laying it out so well!

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