Aztec Sacrifice Timeline

Aztec Sacrifice Timeline

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  • c. 1345 - 1521

    The Aztec civilization flourishes in Mesoamerica.

  • 1351

    New Fire Ceremony celebrated by the Aztecs.

  • 1403

    New Fire Ceremony celebrated by the Aztecs.

  • 1455

    New Fire Ceremony celebrated by the Aztecs.

  • 1487

    The Templo Mayor is completed at Tenochtitlan and inaugurated with the sacrifice of 20,000 captives.

  • 1507

    New Fire Ceremony celebrated by the Aztecs.

Aztec Sacrifice - The Meaning and Practice of Mexica Ritual Killings

  • Ph.D., Anthropology, University of California Riverside
  • M.A., Anthropology, University of California Riverside
  • B.A., Humanities, University of Bologna

Aztec sacrifices were famously a part of the Aztec culture, famous in part because of deliberate propaganda out of the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico, who at the time were involved in executing heretics and opponents in bloody ritual displays as part of the Spanish Inquisition. The over-emphasis on the role of human sacrifice has led to a distorted view of Aztec society: but it is also true that violence formed a regular and ritualized part of life in Tenochtitlan.

Key Takeaways: Aztec Sacrifice

  • Sacrifices were a regular and ritualized part of life in 15th- and 16th-century Aztec capital cities.
  • The numbers and extent of the practice were almost certainly inflated by Spanish conquistadors.
  • Reasonable estimates are between 1000 and 20,000 human sacrifices per year in Tenochitlan the Spanish claimed much more.
  • The main religious purpose was to renew and sustain life, and to communicate with the gods.
  • As a political tool, sacrifice was used to terrorize Aztec subjects and legitimize the Aztec rulers and the state itself.

How many people did the Aztecs sacrifice?

The Spanish invaders were shocked to find that the Aztecs carried out huge numbers of human sacrifices at their temples.

The scale of the killings has long been a matter of controversy as the Spanish may have exaggerated the numbers killed to make the Aztecs appear more barbaric.

Sacrifice was a central focus of religion in Central America. People would often stab themselves with thorns in their tongues, ears or even genitalia to offer the blood to the gods. As for human sacrifice, some victims volunteered for the good of the community or to atone for a sin, but most were prisoners of war or criminals.

The Spanish records relate mostly to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, where sacrifices took place 18 times every year, with around 60 victims each time. A human sacrifice was dedicated to one of the gods, so the form of sacrifice varied accordingly.

The god Tlaloc, for example, demanded that children have their throats cut, and to please Chicomecoatl, a girl was beheaded. Huitzilopochtli preferred to have the beating hearts of men cut out and placed in front of his statue, while the severed head was put on a rack on the temple walls.

It is possible that around 20,000 people were sacrificed a year in the Aztec Empire. Special occasions demanded more blood – when a new temple to Huitzilopochtli was dedicated in 1487, an estimated 80,400 people were sacrificed.

2. It is supported by archaeological evidence

In 2015 and 2018, archaeologists at the Templo Mayor excavation site in Mexico City discovered proof of widespread human sacrifice among the Aztecs.

Researchers studying human bones found in Tenochtitlan found that the individuals had been decapitated and dismembered.

The analysis suggested that the victims that been butchered and consumed, and that their flesh was removed immediately after immolation.

Illustrations in temple murals and stone carvings have also been found to depict scenes of ritual human sacrifice.

Aztec Empire for Kids The Awesome Aztecs

The Aztec wandered around Mexico for about 200 years before they settled down in the Valley of Mexico. Other tribes were living in the area. Rather than start a war for a place to live, the Aztecs settled down peacefully (at first) in the swampy land around Lake Texcoco.

They were clever people. They adapted to their environment. They built canoes to fish and hunt. They filled the marshes with a combination of reeds and stones and dirt to create more farmland. They built dams and dikes to free even more land. Their engineers successfully built a bustling city, with wide plazas and many shops, on a swamp.

After they had settled in, the Aztec Indians began conquering neighboring tribes. Soon, the entire Valley of Mexico was under their control. Other tribes had to pay tribute to them in the form of food, clothing, goods, and captives to feed the hungry Aztec gods. The Aztec believed in human sacrifice. That was one of the many reasons the other tribes hated and feared the Aztec. But the Aztec seemed unstoppable.

It was not until the 1500s, when the Spanish arrived, that the Aztec were conquered. The Spanish brought guns, dogs, horses, and disease. It was disease that conquered the Aztec. The Aztec Empire collapsed. The Spanish took over the entire region.

Today, in Mexico, there are about one million descendants of the ancient Aztec, living and working. Human sacrifice is no longer part of their festivals (thank goodness!), but beautiful Aztec art and clever Aztec games are still enjoyed today.


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Aztec is a Mesoamerican Kingdom located in central Mexico. The Aztecs generally tend to be the most dominant and influential power in pre-Columbian Central America.

Aztec Culture and Human Sacrifice

The first thing to understand about the Mesoamerican cultures and the Aztecs’ use of human sacrifice is that they were not horrified by it. Instead, it was a natural part of life to them, necessary to keep the world balanced and going forward. Blood and sacrifice helped the sun to rise and move across the sky. Without it, their world would end.

That’s not to say that all Aztecs and other Mesoamericans went to the sacrifice willingly. No doubt many did not want to be sacrificed or to die. Others, however, agreed to give of themselves for the greater good. When we picture victims being led to sacrifice, we see them as weeping, moaning and fighting to get free. For the most part, that simply didn’t happen.

To die as a sacrifice was the most honorable death the Aztecs knew. When an Aztec warrior died in battle or an Aztec woman in childbirth, those were also good, honorable deaths. People who died as a sacrifice, as a warrior or in childbirth went to a paradise to be with the gods after death. In contrast, a person who died of disease went to the lowest level of the underworld, Mictlan.

Many scholars have devised theories to explain this “darkness” of the Aztecs, their love of human sacrifice. Some posited that Aztecs were savages and amoral, less than human. Others have said the Aztec leaders used human sacrifice to terrorize their population and the nearby cultures. Some stated that an essential protein was missing from the Aztec diet and they needed the “meat” from human sacrifices to feed themselves, using cannibalism to do so. None of these theories, however, have held up.

From its earliest inception, Mesoamerican cultures featured human sacrifice so it was plainly not “invented” by Aztec rulers to terrorize the people, nor was it a betrayal by the priesthood of Aztec spirituality. Studies of the Aztec’s mainly vegetarian diet flavored with occasional turkey or dog revealed all necessary ingredients to sustain life. The Aztecs had laws against murder and injury, just as we do, so it wasn’t that they were depraved savages.

Rather, it was a central part of their religion and spirituality, to give up their blood and lives in devotion and dedication to the gods who had sacrificed themselves to create the world and keep it going. Most religions contain an element of sacrifice—giving up meat in Lent, for example—and giving your life for a friend is a great act of love. The Aztecs accepted this as a necessary part of life. By dying as a sacrifice, they honored the gods. Still, we can’t help but think that many didn’t wish to die, but accepted it as inevitable.

After the Spanish Conquest, many Spanish priests and friars learned enough of the Aztec’s language to talk with Aztec survivors of the battles and diseases. From them, the Spanish learned that many of the sacrificial victims were friends of the Royal House, or high-ranking nobility and priests. Every class of Aztec occasionally were sacrificed, and all ages as well. Children were sacrificed to the god of rain. Often enough, however, it was nobles and captured warriors whose hearts fed the gods. Remember, however, that being sacrificed was most prestigious way to die. While this shocks us today, we must nevertheless give the Aztecs their due—they found human sacrifice not only acceptable, but necessary and honorable.

Details Showing the Brutality of the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica

The various cultures which existed in Mesoamerica in the centuries which preceded the arrival of the Europeans ensured that it was a brutal place. Human sacrifice predominated in the cultures of the Mayans and Aztecs, as well as many of the societies which existed before their dominance. For the Aztecs, human sacrifice was a major component of society, a fact of everyday life, for reasons which went beyond religious ceremonies and rituals. It was but one part of the brutal nature of life in the Aztec empire, in which activities which would today be regarded as torture or self-mutilation were prevalent. Some brutality was ritualistic, some was part of military training, and some was demonstrative, a presentation to others of courage and endurance.

The capture of Moctezuma, also known as Montezuma, by Cortes&rsquo forces marked the end if the Aztec Empire. Wikimedia

In Aztec society, all males were required to be trained as warriors, but the training was but an initial step in achieving that status. Following training a man was required to capture and present to leaders a prisoner, who was usually destined to be sacrificed. The prisoners were not necessarily enemies as such travelers, including women and children, qualified as prisoners, at least before the middle of the fifteenth century. The number of prisoners and slaves offered for human sacrifice has been debated by historians, scholars, and archaeologists ever since they were first recorded by the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. The brutality of Aztec life has not.

Here are some examples of life within the Aztec empire, both among the Aztecs and among those so unfortunate as to have fallen into their hands.

The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl as depicted in a 16th century codex. Wikimedia

1. The Aztecs believed their gods had sacrificed themselves to ensure human life survived

The central creation beliefs of the Aztecs were centered in the legend of the Five Suns, which led them to consider themselves the people of the sun. The earth on which they lived was believed to be the last of what had been five separate worlds, created by four gods, who created all of the lesser gods. Ometeotl was the first of all the gods, without gender, and he or she gave birth to four gods which commanded the primary directions North, South, East, and West. Sibling rivalries among the four saw the birth and destruction of worlds. Quetzalcoatl became the primary god promoting the humans, despite their failure to offer proper respect to the gods. Over time the worlds and the people populating them were destroyed and other worlds and races of man created.

The fourth of these worlds was destroyed by a great flood, and humanity survived by becoming creatures of the sea. Quetzalcoatl redeemed his people by stealing their bones from the nether world and dipping them in his blood, restoring humanity. The creation myth and its many subplots and other gods was fraught with jealousies among the gods, with some demanding human sacrifice offered to them and others, including Quetzalcoatl, opposing human sacrifice and instead asking for blood sacrifices, with individuals offering their own blood as a gift to the gods. Other gods likewise demanded sacrifices of a varying nature, in order to keep the sun shining, the waters flowing, and the earth providing sustenance to the people. These beliefs, as well as other subtexts, were first shared with the Spanish and the Franciscan priests which arrived to convert the Aztecs to Christianity.

Life in the Time of Cocoliztli

The Spanish conquests in the Americas would not have been possible without disease. That’s because pathogens that were mostly unknown on the continents preceded the conquistadors in both Mexico and Peru. In Mexico, the pestilence reached the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, before its fall in 1521. Pathogens also reached Peru, inciting a civil war among the Incas. Both of these situations were extremely favorable for Spain. The plague—cocoliztli—was the most devastating post-conquest epidemic in large parts of Mexico, wiping out somewhere around 80 percent of the native population.

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“Somewhere around” because population estimates are difficult to come by, with extrapolations made from incomplete colonial sources that date back to precolonial times. For the ethnohistorian Charles Gibson, there is no “sure method for determining whether the later [colonial era] counts were more accurate or less accurate than the earlier ones,” so that “the magnitude of the unrecorded population seems unrecoverable.”

Nevertheless, Gibson’s best estimate is a population of 1,500,000 inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico at the time of first contact with Europeans. There was a sharp fall of about 325,000 by 1570 a drastic fall to about 70,000 by the mid-seventeenth century followed by slow growth to about 275,000 by 1800. Gibson’s figures are simply staggering. They give us a rough impression, but tell us little about the suffering and massive social upheaval caused by these catastrophes.

According to the “Virgin Soil” theory, the epidemics were so desctructive because “the populations at risk have had no previous contact with the diseases that strike them and are therefore immunologically… defenceless,” as the psychiatrist David Jones writes in the William & Mary Quarterly. The theory is still widespread, often devolving into vague claims that indigenous people had “no immunity” to the new epidemics. By now we know that the lack of immunity played a role, but mostly early on. Current research instead emphasizes an interplay of influences, for the most part triggered by Europeans: slavery, forced labor, wars, and large-scale resettlements all worked together to make indigenous communities more vulnerable to disease.

According to a group of scholars writing in the journal Latin American Antiquity, in colonial Mexico, “by the mid-17th century, many… communities had failed, victims of massive population decline, environmental degradation, and economic collapse.” This is why it’s crucial for today’s scholars to emphasize the influence of colonial policies—as opposed to the Virgin Soil theory, which shifts responsibility away from Europeans.

One peak of the epidemic occurred in the 1570s. The exact pathogen that caused that epidemic is not yet known. Some scholars have speculated that, since it struck mostly younger people, it might have been something unique to the New World and reminiscent of the Spanish Influenza outbreak, possibly a tropical hemorrhagic fever. Other recent theories include Salmonella, or a combination of diseases. Native communities were the main victims of this epidemic due to their poverty, malnourishment, and harsh working conditions compared to the Spanish population. It’s important to note that, by then, the Spaniards’ immunity would have played a less significant role than it did in earlier outbreaks.

Q&A: Why and how did the Aztecs practise human sacrifice?

Note: Caroline Dodds Pennock was speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast, answering questions about the Aztecs submitted by our readers and the top online search queries posed to the internet. A selection of her answers have been transcribed and edited for clarity, and are shared below…

Q: Why did human sacrifice take place in the Aztec empire, and how often?

A: Frustratingly, it’s quite hard to tell how much sacrifice there was. Depending on which sources or which set of statistics you use, you can either end up with a number that is a very high or really quite low. It’s safe to say though that there was prominent and regular human sacrifice taking place.

The root of this, as far as we can tell, is to do with a reciprocal relationship between the gods and humans. The Aztecs believed that you had to give back to the gods because they gave to you.

The mythical histories of the Aztec people talk about the gods sacrificing themselves to create humanity. Take the account of the great earth crocodile Tlaltecuhtli. She was supposedly ripped in half to create the land, and then humans had to feed her with blood in order to sustain her and pay back the original debt.

In another account, one god goes into the underworld and steals the bones of a man and a woman from a previous era from under the nose of the ‘Lord of the Land of the Dead’. He brings the bones to a place that broadly translates as ‘paradise’, where they are ground up by a female god on a grinding stone and turned into a sort of bone flour. Then the male gods let blood from their penises to moisten the dough in order to form little human figures out of it. The Aztecs believed that up to this point there had been five ages of the world and that they were living in the fifth age, and that is how this incarnation of humanity came to be.

Human sacrifice was intended to pay back the debt that was formed when the gods let blood from themselves to create the world. The Aztecs believed that if they didn’t sustain the sun with blood, the world would come to an end. It was kind of like feeding the gods. Unlike in some other sacrificial cultures, where you might offer a human sacrifice to gain the power of a person – become richer or more important or have more children – for the Aztecs, human sacrifice wasn’t really for personal gain. Essentially, it was an altruistic act – human sacrifice was necessary for all of humanity. This was a communal response to a collective debt.

Listen: Caroline Dodds Pennock responds to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the Mesoamerican civilisation

Q: Who were the victims of sacrifice? Is it true that people willingly volunteered?

A: In theory, there were some voluntary victims of human sacrifice. In reality, it’s very hard to tell whether this was the case. The majority of victims were people (mostly men, but sometimes women and children) captured in war. Some of them were sacrificed as generic victims – if they needed to sacrifice say five people. Some were sacrificed as impersonators of the gods, known as ixiptla they took on the mantle of a god and were killed in honour of the gods they were impersonating. These ixiptla formed a prominent part of the regular festivals.

Children were sacrificed in particular for Tlaloc, the rain god. These children were mostly from within the Aztec group – they came from Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital of the Aztec empire. We know that if you were born with a double cowlick – those flicks that make your hair go in the wrong direction – then you were destined to become a sacrificial victim.

There is some talk about whether if, when a child like this was born, especially in a culture with a high infant-mortality rate, you might have been able to kind of mentally distance from them. But we also know that sacrifice was based on a sympathetic magic. The children were supposed to cry, and people were supposed to cry about them dying. These tears would bring the rain.

For me, it’s very notable that the children offered to Tlaloc were not killed in the city, but were instead taken into the mountains to be sacrificed in a lake. It’s significant that the one sacrifice that very prominently took place away from the city is that of Aztec children. You wonder whether people would have been prepared to watch that spectacle in quite the same way.

We mustn’t forget that other cities around Tenochtitlan were also practising sacrifice. There was an acceptance that as a warrior, if you were captured by another city, you could be sacrificed.

It was a shared belief that dying as a sacrifice or in battle was one of the very few ways you could get a privileged afterlife. The closest parallel is something like martyrdom, where you die for the gods and gain a privilege as a result. The vast majority of people were destined for a place called Mictlan after they died, which is not exactly hell, but is a nonetheless dark, damp and unpleasant place, where you would have to endure low-grade suffering for eternity.

But if you were a man who died in sacrifice, first you would accompany the sun for four years, leading and heralding the gods in a glorious way. Then, you would go off to become a hummingbird or a butterfly that dances in the sun and sips nectar. The sources suggest that in paradise, you would live drunk, oblivious to the cares of the world. You can see why that might seem an appealing option.

In reality, the likelihood is that while some people faced the prospect of being sacrificed by exalting their cities, praising the gods and bravely accepting their fate as a warrior, other people were dragged kicking and screaming.

Caroline Dodds Pennock is lecturer in international history at the University of Sheffield, and author of Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture(Palgrave Macmillan, paperback edition, 2008).