Destroying a Culture: The Aztecs 1519 CE

It is always distasteful when violent oppressors denigrate their victims, the more so when the badmouthing happens to be justified. The Spaniards who conquered Mexico in the early 16th century CE were brutal, greedy, and dirty. The Aztecs were worse.

While giving a lecture in Southwest China in 1983 on the European conquest of the Americas, including the 1519 Mexican campaign of Cortés, I mentioned in passing that many scholars estimated the Aztecs ritually killed about 20,000 people annually, donating the hearts of their victims to fearsome deities, mounting the skulls on poles in displays around their temples, and eating much of the remainder. I did not mention that some senior scholars had estimated the number of people sacrificed in Central Mexico when the Aztecs were at the height of their power to be approximately 250,000 per year.

A gentle Chinese engineer raised his hand to ask a question: “Are they still like that in Mexico?”

I had been thoughtless. While the first quarter of the 16th century might appear almost ancient from the perspective of many of the citizens of the United States, to the Chinese scholars in the audience, it was virtually the day before yesterday.

Aztec cannibalism is reported often in the histories of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, including the writings of Hernando Cortés, Bernard Díaz del Castillo, and Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, and is visually depicted by native artists in the Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. A favored dish seems to have been a stew of tomatoes, peppers, and flesh from the arms and legs of the sacrificial victims. One local who could not wait for his meal to be prepared is reported to have snacked on slices of nose removed from his still living captive.

Such details have not stopped academics dedicated to romantic notions of noble aborigines living in harmony with their environment from ignoring documentary and archeological evidence to fulminate against any suggestion that the Aztecs, or for that matter the Iroquoians or Pacific Islanders, may have practiced anthropophagy at any time. These polemicists generate outraged letters and book length arguments based on high moral attitudes, ignorant assertions, and petulant deconstructions of documents. Such arguments, often remarkably innocent of historical foundation, have sometimes been published by otherwise reputable university presses.

As archeological evidence of Aztec cannibalism and a more detailed understanding of classical Mesoamerican cultures have developed, the cannibalism deniers have become even less credible than they were 35 years ago. A sentimental falsification’s demise is not much of a loss: the fantasy that the Mayan city states were peaceful communities led by sages and philosopher kings could not survive the decryption of the Mayan writing system. History is richer for knowing that in reality the area of Mayan culture was dominated by city state polities whose squabbling and internecine warfare make Classical Greece look almost irenic by comparison.

The practice of Aztec cannibalism helps explain some things about the odd nature of their imperium, like the existence of enemy enclaves within the Aztec lands. Since it was generally forbidden to eat members of your own community, such unconquered territories were a convenient source of war captives to sacrifice and eat.

Anthropologists and historians note the paucity of domesticated animals and the general lack of high protein food sources as probable causative factors in the widespread practice of cannibalism in pre-conquest Mexico.

This is not to say that the Aztecs deserved to be brutally attacked by the Spanish conquistadors, although it helps explain why other tribes were so willing to join the Spanish campaigns. Victory over the Aztecs was not won primarily by native allies or European weapons, however, nor was the ensuing near genocide of native peoples in the Americas the direct result of warfare, though the horrors of slavery in the Spanish run mines and agricultural estates provided suitably grim finishing touches.

The deadliest invaders were from the Old World, but they were bacterial and viral.

The natives of Central Mexico, being densely populated and immunologically naïve, lacking any prior exposure to European diseases, constituted an ideal environment for virulent pandemics. Smallpox and respiratory infections spread rapidly and killed quickly. Cortés was saved more than once by the sudden death by disease of key Aztec leaders. Spanish transmission of and immunity to European diseases ultimately were more effective than weapons, horses, or bravery in the process of conquest.

Similarly, European diseases spread by transatlantic fishing expeditions depopulated the Massachusetts Bay area in the early 17th century, paving the way for the Great Migration of English settlers in the 1630s. The French in Canada were on the losing side of European pandemics in Colonial America, as they gambled on the strength of aboriginal allies to counter the superior demographic trends of neighboring English colonists. Tribe after tribe, despite being carefully cultivated by the French authorities, succumbed to European diseases before they could squelch the English settlements.

The introduction of European diseases was critical to the successful colonization of North, Central, and South America. Of course the colonists preferred to credit their advanced culture, astute leadership, and religious piety. The Mexican natives may have built impressive cities, but the Aztec practice of human sacrifice on a horrific scale and cannibalism on an equally appalling level made them historically vulnerable to the cant of European imperialism. Not all victims are innocent.

Further Reading:

• The Aztec cannibalism debate of the 1970s was in part provoked by Marvin Harris’ Cannibals and Kings [1977]. Marshall Sahlins provides a useful summary of the arguments and evidence in his reply to W. Arens in The New York Review of Books, Volume 26, Number 4 [March 22, 1979].

• Michael Cole’s Breaking the Maya Code is an enjoyable account of the addition of a great people to the documented history of the world. Linda Schele and David Freidel summarize what was learned in A Forest of Kings, as do Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler in The Ancient Maya.

• William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples and Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange and his Ecological Imperialism were groundbreaking studies of the impact of disease and environment on history. Charles Mann’s 1491 and 1493 usefully extend their discussions. Elizabeth Fenn’s Pox Americana chronicles smallpox’s disastrous effects on the natives of North America.

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