Program Transcript

NARRATOR: Zultepec, Mexico.

Archaeologists make a grisly find:

Four hundred skeletons buried in a mass grave. The bodies have lain undisturbed for 500 years, since the time of the Spanish conquest.

But this is no ordinary gravesite. The remains suggest these people met a gruesome end at the hands of the Aztecs, who ruled Mesoamerica in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

But who were the victims and why were they killed? Archaeologist Elizabeth Baquedano has come to find out.

What she uncovers will rewrite history, shatter our understanding of the Aztecs, and reveal the shocking secrets behind the massacre at Zultepec.

TITLE: AZTEC MASSACRE

With a population of more than 28 million, Mexico City is the largest metropolis in the western hemisphere—the second biggest city in the entire world.

It’s a vibrant and chaotic mix of movement and color. But these teeming streets once had a very different look.

Five centuries ago, this was the center of the Aztec world.

A wandering tribe of Aztecs from the north settled on this swampy part of central Mexico in the 1300’s.

From migratory beginnings, they rose up to rule an Empire for three hundred years.

The Aztecs were fierce warriors, who ruthlessly conquered and subjugated neighboring peoples to become the dominant force in the region.

Their power and ferocity is well documented, but the scope of the killings at Zultepec has shocked even the most knowledgeable Aztec experts. At the invitation of scientists from the site, Elizabeth Baquedano has come to investigate how these bodies ended up in this mass grave, and how the massacre fits into our understanding of Aztec history.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: What I am hoping to do is not only find out who these people were or how they died, but to answer a much bigger question.

NARRATOR: That question will lead Elizabeth to an unlikely story of colonial invasion, armed resistance, and human sacrifice.

Records show that sacrifice was central to Aztec culture. The Aztecs practiced the ritual with great frequency, using their enemies as the sacrificial lambs.

Could the bodies at Zultepec be evidence of some massive religious ceremony? To find out, Elizabeth must leave Mexico City, and head to the excavation site itself.

The N16 follows an ancient trade route that once connected what is now the Mexican capital and the Atlantic coast.

60 miles down the busy highway, barely noticeable at the edge of the road, lies the scene of the massacre. Once an Aztec stronghold, this is all that remains of the town of Zultepec.

Enrique Martinez has spent more than 15 years as lead archaeologist at the excavation site. His biggest breakthrough was the discovery of the mass grave. It was an incredible find. Even after 500 years in the ground, the bodies have stories to tell about how they ended up here.

So far, 400 have been identified, and the archeologists continue to unearth more remains as they excavate. Each bone contains important clues about the person it came from.

DR. ENRIQUE MARTINEZ: SP: We found something here that’s not just a corpse. Its position implies that after it was sacrificed it was mutilated. The pelvis would have been cut along with the femur and we see that those parts are no longer there. Without doubt the lower limbs have been laid out in a special position.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: We can see that some vertebrae are missing here. The pelvis is missing; we also have the femur bone missing so we have clear signs of dismemberment here.

NARRATOR: Other bodies show similar signs of dismemberment. And comparisons reveal a consistent pattern of missing bones. Skeletons had been decapitated, and specific bones had been removed.

These were no ordinary burials.

DR. ENRIQUE MARTINEZ: SP: From the upper vertebrae to the coccyx the bones are disordered. We see that there is no cervical vertebra. After having been sacrificed in the temple this individual was taken here to be mutilated and for people to begin selecting their trophy bones.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: The warrior was allowed to keep certain parts of the body as signs of prowess in the battlefield and he could keep those bones for instance the femur bone. He could hang that bone outside his house in order to show that he was a successful warrior and that he had been able to capture an individual in the battlefield.

NARRATOR: All the bodies display evidence of this kind of ritual killing and post-mortem dismemberment. But they reveal few obvious signs of their identity, or why they were killed in such large numbers.

To our modern eyes, human sacrifice seems like a barbaric practice. But to the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican societies, it was crucial to their very existence. The Aztecs believed the gods had sacrificed themselves to give mankind life, so the ritual was a form of renewal and repayment.

Here in Zultepec, even the location of the bones within the town points to some kind of central ceremony.

DR. ENRIQUE MARTINEZ: SP: This is the south plaza. We can see here the greatest concentration of localized bone evidence. 280-300 individuals.

NARRATOR: Some of the bodies were carefully laid out, while others were grouped together in seemingly random piles.

The majority were buried in shallow graves close to the large temple that had once stood as the centerpiece of the town. The temple was where sacrifices and other religious ceremonies would have been carried out.

Victims usually died on the altar, which was at the top of the structure. The area around the temple would have been walled off, so that only the priests had direct access.

But even so, the entire population would have known what was going on. The rituals were as much for them as they were for the priests, and the killing of this many people would have been a major event in a town like Zultepec.

Today’s half-excavated ruins do little justice to the original scene.

After five centuries, it is up to the bones to reveal what took place.

The remains are brought here, to the Anthropological Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Artifacts found with the bodies dated the bones to the early 1500s, but scientists are hoping to find out much more about them than just their age.

Forensic anthropologist Magali Cevera has been focusing on one particular analysis:

MAGALI CEVERA: These bones were sent here to the lab just to access the ethnic characteristics. Most of them are shown in the skull.

NARRATOR: When she first started her forensic work, Magali expected to find that all the bodies were indigenous—belonging to members of local tribes who had been captured by the Aztecs.

The skulls of these indigenous people would normally have a broad forehead and wide cheekbones.

But intriguingly, some of the skulls from Zultepec don’t fit that profile.

MAGALI CEVERA: You can see for example the shape of the skull. And in this case it has a very long head with a very narrow forehead and we have also the short orbits very quadrangular shape and also you can these cheek bones which are in a way very light. Also it’s important the shape of the palate and the size of the teeth.

NARRATOR: Civera’s analysis leads her to a shocking conclusion. The skulls could not have belonged to local tribes. Their facial characteristics point to an entirely different ethnic and geographic origin.

MAGALI CEVERA: All of these traits make us think that these remains belong to a European.

NARRATOR: Of the 400 skeletons found so far, as many as 40 seem to be from Europe. The discovery is completely unexpected, and immediately raises questions about how the bodies got there.

Back in Zultepec, the results force a re-evaluation of the grave site. New finds not only corroborate the existence of Europeans, they further narrow the field to Europeans from Spain. The illuminating objects are pieces of iron with telltale signs of Spanish construction and design.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: This is the first iron object to be found at Zultepec. And we know that iron was not actually used by the Aztecs. There is evidence that the horses were with them as well. There are stirrups and we know that the Aztecs didn’t have horses; the horses did not exist in the Americas so this is yet another proof that the Spaniards were here at Zultepec.

NARRATOR: The Spanish were the first Europeans to arrive in Mexico. They landed on the Gulf Coast in 1519, searching for wealth and glory. The initial invasion force was made up of just five hundred and fifty men, sixteen horses and a few canons.

PROF. MATTHEW RESTALL: They’re not really professional soldiers. Some of them are, but most of them are regular Spaniards they’re from middle ranks, the leaders are lower nobility. They are artisans, professionals of that kind, notaries, tailors, carpenters and so on. I like to think of them as armed entrepreneurs. They were entrepreneurs in that they all invested in this company and that’s what the Spaniards called it a company and they invested what they could. So if they were well off and they could provide ships, horses, cannons and so on then they did that even cash investments. If they’re poor then they bring themselves, that’s their investment, it’s a personal investment in their willingness to fight and sacrifice themselves in order to carve out a new province or colony for the, for the Empire.

NARRATOR: Cognizant of a powerful civilization in the Mexican interior, the Spanish Conquistadors didn’t linger on the coast for long.

They soon set of inland, and as they traveled, the caravan began to swell. Local people were eager to take up arms against their oppressive Aztec rulers.

After weeks of marching, the column arrived in Tenochtitlan, capital of the mighty Aztec Empire. The Spaniards must have been shocked by what they saw.

Tenochtitlan, with its impressive boulevards and magnificent architecture, had a population of more than 200,000. In the very center of the city was the most significant of all its buildings, the Templo Mayor. This was where the most important Aztec rituals and ceremonies took place.

Today, all that remains of the massive structure are these ruins in the heart of Mexico City. They are dwarfed by the metropolitan Cathedral and the surrounding buildings. But back then, they would have presented an imposing sight.

PROF. MATTHEW RESTALL: For me this is one of the great moments in human history. Two civilizations meeting for the first time. Imagine the Spaniards coming through the pass between the volcanoes, and they look down and they see the city laid out before them. Spectacular, beautiful, amazing city, larger than any city in Europe, larger than any other city in the Americas, one of the greatest cities in the world. Tenochtitlan sitting on an island, all the towns around the edge of the lake, combined population of hundreds of thousands of people, they come in to the city, absolutely an incredible moment, cinematic moment.

NARRATOR: Tenochtitlan stood as a testament to the wealth and power of the great Aztec empire.

Into this grandeur walked the Conquistadors. It was to be a fateful confrontation between two very different civilizations.

The Aztecs were ruled by the powerful Moctezuma.

The Spanish were led by the wily and determined Hernán Cortés.

Their first meeting was peaceful but tense.

Cortés was a maverick in his day. He’d already conquered Cuba for the Spanish, but after falling out with the Cuban governor, he had lost his government’s support for the mission to the mainland. The lack of backing did little to quell his confidence.

ADRIAN LOCKE: He was not a particularly well educated person he certainly didn’t come from the elite, he was just an ordinary working class kind of person really and he was someone who realized quite early I think, the stories that were coming back across the Atlantic were very enticing and he thought well I want a piece of that action you know I want to get out there and I want to grab myself some money and maybe some fame and see what happens, you know.

NARRATOR: Moctezuma, on the other hand, was a sophisticated leader born of Aztec royalty. He was unsure what to make of Cortés and the Conquistadors.

He had been warned of the Spaniard’s arrival, and was unsettled by this white-skinned man riding a strange, unknown beast. Moctezuma thought Cortés’s appearance might be the fulfillment of an ancient prophesy about a returning Aztec god.

ADRIAN LOCKE: There was part of him that really wanted them to just go away, he didn’t want to have to deal with this problem at all and he spent vast amounts of energy trying to encourage the Spanish to just disappear. But there was also part of him that was convinced that this was the return of Quetzalcoatl who was said to have disappeared over the seas in the East and would be returning. Moctezuma was clearly unable to make a definitive decision so he decided the first course of action really would be just to pacify these strangers and give them small gifts.

NARRATOR: These gifts had a profound effect on Cortés and his men.

CORTÉS LETTER: After we had walked a little way up the street a servant of his came with two necklaces, wrapped in cloth, made from red snails’ shells, which they hold in great esteem; and from each necklace hung eight shrimps of refined gold almost a span in length. When they had been brought he turned to me and placed them about my neck.

NARRATOR: Though wary, Moctezuma made a great effort to play the perfect host, showing his guests around the city and entertaining them with lavish banquets.

But despite the regal treatment, Cortés remained suspicious—sure that the Aztec leader was planning something sinister. Cortés made the decision to act first…and took Moctezuma captive.

The story of what happened next, is still cause for debate among modern-day historians. One version of the events is depicted in extraordinary murals on the walls of the national palace.

Famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera, painted the murals in 1929. He used historical sources to make them as accurate as possible.

They represent the traditional view of what happened after the Conquistadors arrived. The paintings illustrate how the great warrior nation of the Aztecs put up little resistance to the invaders, and quickly ceded control of their kingdom to the Spanish.

In this retelling, Moctezuma took too long to admit that the Conquistadors were not resurrected Aztec gods, and that he had chosen the wrong course of action by welcoming them into his realm.

He finally realized they were ruthless enemies, driven by greed and an insatiable thirst for power and wealth. Of course by then, the damage had already been done…

ADRIAN LOCKE: The traditional view of the conquest of Mexico is one great kind of law written into great victories if you like, military victories of world history, how a group of illiterate, largely illiterate, untrained soldiers could march into a nation of some fifteen million individuals and basically lay waste to them and capture the great prize of Mexico, Tenochtitlan and rule over them as if by magic almost. This of course is a very rose tinted view of the reality of the situation.

NARRATOR: It’s a classic case of history being written by the victors. But the discovery of the Spanish skeletons at Zultepec, means history might have to be rethought.

The bones have only begun to reveal their secrets. A facial reconstruction lab at the Anthropological Institute is providing additional details about who the victims were.

Edgar Gayton is the forensic artist doing the difficult reconstruction work.

He is painstakingly building a profile of each skull. His endeavors have led to the biggest breakthrough since the discovery that many of the victims were European.

EDGAR GAYTON: SP: Every human is different and the same characteristics that were recognized in life are reproduced in the skull. In this case we can see that this skull is more masculine and this one feminine. It has much more rounded features.

NARRATOR: The analysis has revealed that at least ten of the skulls belonged to European females.

It’s an important revelation, because it narrows down the exact time frame in which the massacre could have taken place.

From Cortés’ letters, Elizabeth determined that when he first arrived, he led an all-male crew. There were no women at all in his original convoy.

But soon after, a second party of Spaniards followed Cortés to Mexico. They were sent to arrest him, since he had left on his mission without Spanish consent. This group did have women with them.

ADRIAN LOCKE: He’d secured this passage without the knowledge of the governor and the governor was fairly sort of unhappy about the whole thing because he had no control over Cortés or this mission really. I think that this was a very competitive kind of moment and everyone was quite keen to get out there and be the first to get in to the action if you know what I mean and make the most of the opportunities that were presenting themselves.

NARRATOR: When Cortés heard about the second convoy, he had no choice but to confront them.

ADRIAN LOCKE: He had to do something. He realized he had something pretty special within his grasp really, and this was not something that he wanted to share with anyone and it certainly wasn’t something that he wanted taken away from him in terms of the control. Cortés of course leaves Tenochtitlan to go back to Veracruz to find out what it is that the secondary group of Spaniards that had followed him, followed him with the aim of finding out what he was up to and probably to wrestle control from him.

NARRATOR: Leaving a small garrison in charge of the Aztec capital, Cortés marched east with a band of his finest soldiers. He arrived back at the coast and went to battle—quickly vanquishing his would-be captors.

Not wanting to stay away from Tenochtitlan any longer than necessary, Cortés immediately gathered up the defeated soldiers and their entourage of women and slaves, and set off on his return trip.

His urgency was well-warranted. According to most accounts, word reached him during the march that Moctezuma had died. To this day it is unclear whether he was killed by his captors or by his own people, but either way, Cortes recognized the precariousness of his situation. He needed to get back to the Capital.

ADRIAN LOCKE: He knew the situation was tense. He didn’t know what was going to happen next but he had seen the city, he had been living in the city, and he knew that there was a lot of wealth there and by you know, by no way was he just going to give that up. He wanted to get back there and claim his rightful share.

NARRATOR: The route Cortés took can still be followed today. It’s a long trail that meanders through the Mexican countryside. As had happened on his original journey, the caravan’s numbers swelled with locals who were eager to enlist in a campaign against the Aztecs.

With few horses and an ever-growing number of men and women in tow, the column’s progress slowed to a crawl. The group had safety in numbers, but they weren’t moving fast enough to suit the anxious Cortés.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: They traveled through this rugged terrain towards the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. They had great advantages. The use of weapons of fire and horses.

NARRATOR: These tools must have comforted them, because as they moved farther inland, they could feel the growing Aztec unrest.

Later, Cortés wrote about the journey. He described how he eventually made the crucial decision to leave the slow masses behind, and move ahead faster with just a small group of soldiers. He never mentioned the convoy again.

Cortés knew that if he delayed any longer, he risked a full-blown Aztec uprising and the loss of all the wealth and recognition he so desperately craved.

Hundreds of men and women—both local and Spanish—were left to fend for themselves in ever-more-hostile Aztec territory.

The large group, abandoned by Cortés and still moving slowly, had little choice but to continue making its way west towards the capital. Despite their numbers, they had few weapons and even fewer trained soldiers. They must have seemed like an easy target for the well-trained Aztec warriors.

There are no records about the final attack, but it was only a matter of time before the convoy was overrun. The Aztecs had an intimate knowledge of the area, the element of surprise, and a prowess for ambushing in the dark.

The travelers didn’t stand a chance. As was their custom, the Aztecs would have captured their enemies alive. Their fates would be sealed on the altar, not the battlefield.

ADRIAN LOCKE: For the Aztecs warfare was much more of a ritual that was related to their religious worship. They tried to capture the more exalted and honored members of their opposing society and these captures, these captives they would take back to their city where they would be kept and then ritually sacrificed when the time came.

NARRATOR: The Aztecs were known to keep their victims prisoner for months.

For the Conquistadors and their entourage, the wait must have seemed interminable.

The conditions would have been wretched. Little food, little light, and the growing certainty of incomprehensible horrors to come.

The Spanish had no basis for understanding human sacrifice as anything other than an agonizing and barbaric way to die. But for the Aztecs, the ritual was a necessity for survival. To them, sacrifice was not a form of punishment, but the ultimate opportunity to do one’s part for the perpetuation of the universe.

The spectacular city of Teotihuacán was one of the Aztec centers of human sacrifice. The magnificent temples and pyramids were all built in devotion to the gods. Each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors would flock to the city to pay tribute to the deities.

Teotihuacán was known as “the city of gods.” It would have been a stunning backdrop for the sacrificial ceremonies.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: Human sacrifice was very important to the Aztecs, because they believed that without it the gods would go unnourished and the world would come to an end.

NARRATOR: Each of the Temples lining the avenue was dedicated to an individual god.

There were gods for each season, and for important festivals in the Aztec calendar.

Every god was connected to some aspect of the natural world. They required frequent offerings in their honor.

The Aztecs presented food and animals. But the ultimate gift was the sacrifice of a human life.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: According to myth, the gods gathered here at Teotihuacan to create the sun and the moon. Everything was in darkness. It was necessary for the gods to sacrifice themselves. In order to do that they had to throw themselves into a huge fire. In turn, men had to do the same. They had to sacrifice themselves to keep giving that precious nourishment, those precious hearts in order to have the sun moving, in order to have the cosmos in balance.

NARRATOR: The entire Aztec world revolved around this need. Human sacrifice was required to keep their world turning.

One by one, living victims would be brought before the priests.

The actual death blow was forcefully abrupt—it was crucial for the severed heart to remain beating as it was offered up to the gods.

ADRIAN LOCKE: What of course is very difficult for us to understand culturally is what human sacrifice was all about and how it took place and why it was acceptable, because of course to us, human sacrifice seems the most unacceptable of all kind of activities. It’s very difficult to look at that in a very kind of realistic way but certainly the Aztec concept of the world and their understanding of the universe and their right to live in it, to participate in it, was based on the sacrifice of the gods themselves.

NARRATOR: Cortés witnessed the bloody ritual with his own eyes.

He recorded every graphic detail of the ceremony in his letters.

CORTÉS LETTER: They take many girls and boys and even adults, and in the presence of idols they open their chests while they are still alive and take out their hearts and entrails and burn them before the idols, offering the smoke as sacrifice.

NARRATOR: What Cortés didn’t see, was that his own abandoned people were receiving the same treatment.

Back in Zultepec, the Spanish had become the latest offering to the Aztec gods.

DR. ENRIQUE MARTINEZ: SP: This is where they carried out the sacrifices of their captives. Here they suspended people, held by four priests, they removed the heart and offered it up to the sun.

NARRATOR: The sacrifices were only performed by specially trained priests, who were adept with both the ritual…and the knife.

This was their sacrificial altar.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: The victim was laid out on the platform. Four priests were at the back holding each limb, and a fifth priest would actually insert a knife, cut the chest open, tear the heart out and offer it to the sun. The heart was placed on a sacred vessel and then the vessel was brought down the steps. The victim sometimes was rolled down the steps and priests were receiving the victim at the bottom of the temple. When the heart was taken out and it was offered up to the sun, to the god, it was the most precious of all the offerings humans could give to the gods. We know that this very stone witnessed each and every sacrifice at the temple.

NARRATOR: The altar stone remains, and Enrique has even discovered a blade that might have been used in the ceremonies.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: This is the only sacrificial knife that has been found in this ceremonial area.

NARRATOR: The knife was made of flint, with an edge sharp enough to cut through a human chest in a single plunge.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: It had a special box so it was kept and safeguarded every time it was used for human sacrifice.

NARRATOR: The ritual was carefully orchestrated. All the sacrifices at Zultepec took place high on the temple mount. Only the priests took part in the ceremony itself.

But once the killing was over and the human offering had been made, the macabre remains were put on show for the general public to see.

DR. ENRIQUE MARTINEZ: SP: They have pieced together this timber rack to reflect what the original Tzompantli would have looked liked. Tzompantli is the Aztec word for a skull rack. Once the victims were sacrificed to the gods their heads were hung here like trophies.

NARRATOR: In preparation for being displayed, each head was punctured through the left and right temple.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: The skull rack was an altar which normally was placed in front of the main temples. The skulls would have been placed on these beams like beads on a necklace.

NARRATOR: More than two dozen of these pierced skulls were found at Zultepec. At least half of them were of European origin.

The mutilated Spanish remains have provided a clear picture of what befell this unfortunate band of Conquistadors. The next step for Elizabeth is to see if she can find any historical records that corroborate the physical evidence.

The place to go for such records is back in Mexico City. The Library of Anthropology houses priceless and beautiful codices—painted books that document Aztec stories. Most of the manuscripts that still exist were created by early Spanish settlers, but many of these are based on older Aztec pictograms.

DR. CARMEN AGUILERA: I think I have here the Florentine codex. That has, well the Florentine codex is three volumes, but there are several scenes of sacrifice.

NARRATOR: Historian Carmen Aguilera has some interesting images for Elizabeth to see.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: So which one are you going to show me first?

DR. CARMEN AGUILERA: Well, I think the Florentine picture, because it’s very illustrative of how 16th Century people represented human sacrifice. Here we have a picture of sacrifice by taking out the heart of the captive.

NARRATOR: This simple ink drawing, penned by a European scribe not long after the conquest, clearly depicts an Aztec sacrifice of a local victim.

But what Elizabeth wants is any references to the sacrifice of Spaniards.

Carmen can’t go back to the original codices, which are kept in temperature-controlled vaults to keep them from disintegrating.

But she does have facsimiles of the important works, and thinks she knows just where to look for entries about the Spanish.

DR. CARMEN AGUILERA: This is the twelfth book of the Florentine codex.

NARRATOR: Buried within this five hundred page tomb is an illustration that, until now, has never truly caught Carmen’s attention.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: Yes!

DR. CARMEN AGUILERA: Oh you found it. Instead of showing the heads of the Indians it shows horses’ heads and human heads.

NARRATOR: This tiny, crude illustration contains two important clues.

First is the horse heads on the skull rack.

The Aztecs didn’t have horses, so they must have been captured from the Conquistadors.

But even more telling is the depiction of the human heads on the rack.

They are heavily bearded.

Since the locals had little facial hair, the beards were a defining characteristic of the Spanish soldiers.

For Elizabeth, this is just the corroborating evidence she has been looking for. It’s a direct link between the historical records and the Zultepec bones.

But not all her questions have been answered by the codicies.

In the fleeting but tempestuous period of Spanish invasion and Aztec uprising, had there been more to the sacrifices than religious tradition?

Warfare expert Ross Hassig, believes the Aztecs may have had political motives for sacrificing their enemies.

ROSS HASSIG: It’s painted as religious, but in fact it was being used for political purposes and the primary purpose of this was to solidify the empire.

NARRATOR: It’s well-documented that the Aztec warriors terrorized their weaker neighbors, and governed their empire with intimidation and fear. They exacted heavy taxes from their subjects, and gave them little freedom.

Not surprisingly, the Aztecs flourished under this system. But they also worked hard to consolidate and maintain their power. And that, says Ross, is where the other purpose of human sacrifice came in.

ROSS HASSIG: When they had the opportunity, the Aztecs would take captives and make a public display of them. They actually took the skin off the face and their hands, tanned it and sent it around to a lot of these wavering cities. The whole purpose of this kind of display, sacrifice and display, is to intimidate your friends and your enemies and so the Aztecs would have killed these people publicly, displayed their remains publicly, as a way of ensuring the loyalty and fealty of a lot of towns that may have been wavering in their support.

NARRATOR: Could this have been the motive behind the massacre at Zultepec?

ROSS HASSIG: It maybe really was this incident in 1520 where they had all these Spaniards and they were able to sacrifice them at leisure, display them publicly without fear of any reprisals and then send these materials around to a lot of their allies.

NARRATOR: One can only wonder if Cortés and his men in Tenochtitlan caught wind of what was happening to their brethren in Zultepec. If they did, it would have been a chilling warning at a time of escalating violence between the Aztecs and the Conquistadors.

What we do know, is that Cortés did not stay in Tenochtitlan for long after the death of Moctezuma. With the city in chaos, he was forced to retreat.

The Spanish in Zultepec didn’t have that option. And further examination of their bones is revealing that their desecration continued, even after death.

The unfortunate victims had been captured, imprisoned, sacrificed to the Aztec gods and dismembered. Their still-beating hearts had been ripped from their chests.

And now there is evidence they were eaten as well.

Enrique Martinez‘s storeroom contains thousands of artifacts found at Zultepec.

He has obsidian blades and rare pottery burial pots.

Everything has been carefully sorted and catalogued.

One of Enrique’s most prized relics is a stone chamber that was used to hold human hearts during the ritual sacrifices.

But even among all these priceless treasures, it is the bones that provide the most information about the massacre.

Whole skeletons tell one story, but individual bones tell another.

Once the captives had been sacrificed, their bodies were dismembered and ritually prepared.

The long bones were given to the warriors as trophies. But first, they had to be stripped of flesh and treated.

DR. ENRIQUE MARTINEZ: SP: They put the remains in lime to stop them putrifying and eventually they would be displayed in people’s houses.

NARRATOR: Other bones appear to have been cooked at high temperatures.

DR. ENRIQUE MARTINEZ: SP: Some of the bones have been cremated; they would have been put directly on top of the fire.

NARRATOR: The preparation of all these bones suggest that the sacrificial killing was just step one, followed by cooking…and eating…

DR. ENRIQUE MARTINEZ: SP: As well as being ingested the bone has been chewed and eaten too… bit by bit. This is another characteristic that you will notice in the preparation of the bones.

NARRATOR: They display all the hallmarks of having been cooked and consumed.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: We can see some of the marks. These marks actually are of human beings when the person chewed the bones. And we know that the marrow was ritually eaten. It was taken out and eaten.

NARRATOR: Historians have long suspected that the Aztecs indulged in cannibalism.

But according to Enrique, this is the first time that actual archeological evidence has been found to back up the claim.

Once again, the discoveries at Zultepec are corroborated by illustrations in the Aztec codices.

This time, it’s eerie images of Aztec warriors cooking and devouring their enemies.

ADRIAN LOCKE: There were also rituals in which human flesh was eaten. Now whether this was done to strike dread into the hearts of the Spanish, or whether it was done because the Aztecs felt that it might drain the power of the Spaniards. Maybe they felt very strongly that they’d upset the gods and the only way that they could appease them would be to offer the highest form of sacrifice which would be to capture a Spaniard or his horse and sacrifice it, is open to question, but certainly sacrifice of the Spaniards did occur.

NARRATOR: At long last, the full story of the massacre at Zultepec has been wrestled from the bones.

What began as a bold foray into the new world by a band of Spaniards ended up in a bloody execution that defied their European comprehension.

With 21st Century hindsight, the episode sheds new light on the confrontation between the Aztecs and the Conquistadors.

ELIZABETH BAQUEDANO: In my opinion it is certainly a good time to reconsider this important chapter in the history of the conquest of Mexico.

NARRATOR: The widely accepted view, is that the Conquistadors took on the mighty Aztec nation, and brought down their Empire with little resistance. But this history, of course, has been written by the victors.

The truth is not as clear-cut. After fleeing from the Aztec uprising in Tenochtitlan, Cortés and his men regrouped. But it took two long years before they finally conquered the Aztecs. By then, Cortés was back in the Spanish King’s good graces, and was appointed governor of the new territory.

In his new role, he demolished the great Aztec capital and laid the foundations for what is today Mexico City. His metropolis soon became a beacon of European influence in the Americas.

The Aztec resistance was all but forgotten, until the ruins at Zultepec provided some balance to the history.

ADIAN LOCKE: I think it’s important because it tells an aspect of the story that is not often told. One of those really is to perhaps lay bare the myth that the Spaniards just simply moved in and the Aztecs rolled over and if you like just gave up because we know that they didn’t, they fought hard.

NARRATOR: There can now be little doubt that the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire was a bloody affair for both sides. Each nation relied on its own tactics, traditions and beliefs.

The Spaniards eventually triumphed, but at least at Zultepec, there is definitive archeological proof that the Aztecs fought back…

END

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