Gregory Bull/AP

Mystery Shrouds Discovery of Aztec Mass Grave Site

February 12, 2009 01:44 PM
by Christopher Coats
The discovery of 49 bodies in the ruins of one of the Aztecs' final points of resistance against Spanish conquistadors has raised many questions.

Burial Reflects Mixture of Traditions

Found by a team of archeologists in the ruins of a palace complex in the Tlatelolco area, not far from the Aztec Empire capital of Tenochtitlan, the bodies were entombed using aspects of both local and Spanish traditions, even though they are thought to have died in the midst of Spain’s conquest of the region.

Laid on their backs, with their arms crossed on their chest, according to Christian tradition of the time, the bodies were also buried with ornaments and jewelry that predated the arrival of Spaniards, keeping with Aztec rules of burial.

The mystery surrounding the bodies is further complicated by questions about their passing, the Associated Press reported. While some regional experts have been quick to suggest they were part of a final group of resistance fighters, others have pointed to the devastating spread of disease that ravaged the native population shortly after the arrival of Spanish forces.

Whatever their cause of death, however, experts have been left stumped when it comes to explaining how they could be buried using modern and traditional rites of death during a period of such savage and stark division.

"The discovery is filling us with more questions than answers at this point," Salvador Guilliem, who is in charge of government archeology efforts, told Reuters.

Archeologists expect to find at least 50 more bodies on the site.

Historical Context: The Final Days of the Aztec Empire

Drawn to the region by the discovery of precious metals in the West Indies, Spanish conquistadors arrived on the shores of today’s Mexico in 1517, led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba.

Launching a series of exploratory parties from their arrival point on the Yucatan Peninsula, the Spaniards faced little resistance from the native population, many of which belonged to smaller tribes resentful of the ruling Aztec, according to a PBS program, "Conquistadors."

Anchored by the Mexica ethnic tribe, the Aztecs had dominated the region for centuries, centralizing their power around what was called the Valley of Mexico, home to their capital of Tenochtitlan and modern day Mexico City.

According to the Houston Institute for Culture, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish, the Aztec Empire reached across 80,000 square miles, encompassing areas of modern day Guatemala and boasting a population of 15 million. 

Despite their substantial influence and power, the leadership of the Aztecs, led by Emperor Montezuma II, initially proved to offer little resistance to forces led by Spaniard Hernan Cortez.

Aided by a wealth of arms and animals the native population had never seen, as well as an ancient legend telling of a light skinned god of creation named Quetzalcóatl would one day arrive from the east, the Spanish were accepted into the capital city with ease.

However, realizing their error after the invaders’ brutality became clear, the native Aztecs soon turned against their invaders, even resisting pleas from Emperor Montezuma, then in the custody of the Spanish, to submit.

Instead, the Aztecs were led by Cuitlahuac, who had never believed that the Spaniards were deities and proposed a more militant resistance to the conquistadors. Driving them from the city soon after, the Aztecs appeared to be able to present a viable challenge to the Spaniards, despite their lack of modern weapons and horses.

Both Cuitlahuac and his people were little match for the wealth of new diseases that had arrived with the Spanish forces, however. Just four months later, Cuitlahuac succumbed to smallpox in a wave of disease that killed the majority of the native population.

In the years that followed, small pockets of resistance remained but the Spanish were able to easily overrun the Aztecs, building their new capital city on the ruins of Tenochtitlan – today’s Mexico City, named for the ethnic tribe they had conquered.

Throughout this period, Aztecs lost in battle or to disease were usually dealt with by throwing them into mass graves, with little ceremony or tradition, which makes the Tlatelolco discovery all the more perplexing to archeologists.

Related Topic: Regional Mysteries

In 2005, another mass grave discovery in formerly Mayan Guatemala raised questions among archeologists as the condition of the more 50 bodies found suggested a straying from tradition.

Using modern forensic teams, archeologists were able to determine that in 800 A.D., the city of Cancuén had been overrun and its occupants massacred and dismembered.  Traditionally, invading forces of the time were thought to have conquered cities and ruling them as a vassal state.

The violence and harsh treatment of victims was thought to have been the result of desperation, characteristic of the final days of the Mayan Empire.

Reference: Traveling to Mexico and Central America


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines