Saturday, January 15, 2011

Human Sacrifice in Ancient America

By Alex Graham-Heggie

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.

The human-like high priest entity that features in the many portrayals of elaborate and sadistic sacrificial rituals is known as ‘the Decapitator.’ Bloodletting, beheading, flaying and other forms of torture and execution were all parts of the pageantry.

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.

Beneath the pyramid, 260 skeletons of are buried. Each of them, in turn, is wearing a necklace of human jawbones.Interestingly, after about one hundred years, the dynasty that erected the temple seems to have been overthrown and the temple itself walled off. This suggests that the regime was deposed by the majority.

Again, limited information is available, but afterwards Teotihuacan reverts to an impersonal form of leadership.
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.

Indeed, sacrifice was often a way of formalizing one state’s dominance over another, by ritually executing its highest lords; social rank was a deciding factor in who was made captive in Maya warfare, as when the King of Tikal captured and ‘chopped’ the king of Caracol, thus establishing their own rule over it.

Indeed, the greater part of blood sacrifice among the Maya was so-called ‘autosacrifice,’ wherein lords and ladies actually bleed themselves onto paper and burn the paper for offerings and for divination.

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 Maya city of Copan and the Oaxacan centre of El Tajin both have especially famous ball courts. The founding monarch of Copan, Yax Kuk Mo, has a range of injuries on his skeletons suggestive of taking part in the ball game.

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.


Bob Brier, “The Pyramid Builders” Pyramids, Mummies and Tombs, Discovery Civilization, Summer 2007.
“Yax Kuk Mo” Ancient Clues, Discovery Civilization, Summer 2007.
Harrison, Peter D.
1999 Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an AncientMayaCity. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London.
Evans, Susan Toby Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2004.
“The Fifth World of the Aztecs” Spirits of the Jaguar, NOVA, PBS, 1998.
Personal Communications, Prof. S.E. Jackson, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Toronto, 2007-8.
Irving Rouse. The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. Yale University Press, 1992.

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