Human Sacrifice in Ancient America
Ancient American Civilizations live in some infamy for their alleged practices of human sacrifice.
The truth of human sacrifice is inescapable, and continued in the Americas considerably longer than any comparable practice in Europe. However, the American civilizations, such as the Moche, Teotihuacanos, Maya and Aztecs ought not be judged solely on that basis.
The Moche were a pre-Inca civilization from northern Peru in the early Common Era. Their blood cult is one of the most notorious. Little is understood about the Moche civilization. However, their art depicts many instances of brutal punishments.
However, the Moche also dedicated artistic attention to themes of nature, daily life and dress, and even erotica. Little more is known about them at this time, except that their civilization collapsed, possibly due to climate or invasion, around 750 CE.
Further north, at about the same time the Moche were in their ascendancy, the city of Teotihuacan erected a new structure: the Temple of the Feathered Serpents. Believed to be the burial place of a monarch, it represents an unusual moment in Teotihucan, where a definite monarchy seems to have been in place.
The Maya, further south and east likewise practiced human sacrifice. However, as stated in this author’s article on Maya warfare, it was a relatively rare aspect of their religion, nor necessarily an end in itself.
A word should be spared for another custom often attached to human sacrifice; the Mesoamerican ball game. Throughout Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean, variations on game were played with a rubber ball, cast between teams.
The popular understanding of the ball game frequently says that two teams competed and the losers were sacrificed at the end. In fact the rules of the ball game are not well-known. Nor is it realistic that the game was always played the same way everywhere. The simple fact is its full significance is unknown.
The Aztecs are easily the most infamous American civilization as regards the practice of human sacrifice. Their legends trace the origins of the world to a council of gods at Teotihuacan – long an abandoned ruin by that time – where one of the gods sacrificed himself to create the Sun. Such a great debt needed to be repaid in nothing less than blood. Without that, the crops would not grow, the rain would not fall, and the Sun would not rise.
Also, Aztec codices show them overthrowing cities with temples much like their own, and they took their example of militarism in great part from the Toltecs. In short, their tendency towards sacrifice did not set them apart from their neighbors. They may have been especially good at it, but they did not invent it.
Between lack of information, and common oversimplifications, the stereotype of American civilizations as bloodthirsty has become altogether too commonplace in the 20th Century. No civilization is all one way.
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