During one of the worst defeats of the Spanish conquerors in 1520, the native people of Mexico City, known then as the Acolhuas, captured some 550 conquistadors, including women and children, who had invaded their land. The town where the rebellion occurred was called Zultepec-Tecoaque and now serves as an archaeological treasure trove just east of the city. While Spaniards later wrote accounts of the massacre that occurred in 1520, a dark year for the conquistadors, archaeologists have found some unexpectedly gruesome details about how the European usurpers met their fate.
Hernan Cortés arrived on the shores of Mexico in 1519, looking to conquer a new world and discover the endless riches within. He made many allies in the Aztec empire; however, he also fought many warriors, eventually setting his sights on removing the current ruler Montezuma II. He was successful in this pursuit and well on his way to usurping the empire, but he made one minor mistake; he underestimated how many natives he had angered in the process. Thinking all was settled in the area, Cortés left for a while to handle some military matters elsewhere, leaving his troops behind to guard the Aztec king.
During Cortés’s absence, the natives became restless and decided they were not going to tolerate the occupying Europeans anymore, even though their own king Montezuma was constantly telling them to surrender. While this rebellion was mounting, the second wave of Spanish explorers arrived in the city, carrying about 550 people on their way from Cuba. The convoy consisted of about 15 conquistadors and was also comprised of Indian allies, foot soldiers, children, and various animals. Upon their arrival in this new land, they were instantly faced with the reality of a hostile uprising.
Faced by more of these strange invaders who had already taken their king hostage, the natives fought hard, eventually capturing the entire convoy who, given the circumstances of their arrival, were generally unprepared for such a greeting. The prisoners were then kept in door-less cells where they were held for over six months. During that dark period, the natives took their time decapitating, sacrificing, and cannibalizing all 550 of convoy members, including the children and the horses.
Although it is not entirely clear why the native Aztecs decided to eat their prisoners, historians do know the sacrifices were meant to please the gods in an effort to receive protection from the strange interlopers. Many suggest the cannibalism may have been a way to “internalize” the power of the Spanish by devouring their flesh and organs. Although the horses were also eaten, the Aztecs did not know what to make of the strange pigs and chose to throw their sacrificed corpses down a well instead of eating them.
Up until just a few years ago, no one knew exactly what had happened during that infamous battle between the Spaniards and the Aztecs. While it’s known the natives were victorious over the second arriving convoy, they clearly lost the war, as Spain did eventually conquer Mexico.
Excavations at the site of Zultepec-Tecoaque have revealed artifacts illustrating the massacre that occurred there in 1520. Figurines show beheadings and sacrifices to the gods. The bones of the prisoners tell archeologists the bodies were torn apart and show cut marks indicating meat was removed.
Apparently, the women and children received no special treatment by the natives and may have faced even worse torture to appease the gods. A recent find indicated one woman was sacrificed in the town plaza, dismembered, and then had the skull of her one-year-old child, who was apparently killed as well, placed on her pelvis. The reason for this gruesome process remains unclear but is suspected to be symbolic of Aztec beliefs.
Victors often write the histories of war, and the Spanish kept excellent records of their exploits, regaling the stories of their many conquests. However, their account of the massacre that occurred when Cortés left the city in 1520 seems to have left out many details. Their writings say nothing of women and children being part of the murdered convoy, and yet the bones tell a different story. Nonetheless, the archeological facts stand as a testament to the power of the indigenous resistance and the bloody conflict that existed around the arrival of the conquistadors—an arrival that would eventually destroy the Aztec empire.
Considering the vast wealth of the Spanish, it stands to reason the Aztecs may have wanted some of this precious gold and jewels for themselves. However, the natives seemed indifferent to the treasures of the conquistadors. A prized and elaborately detailed majolica plate from Europe was tossed into the wells, as were jewelry, spurs, stirrups, all of which were no use to the Aztecs. However, some of the horses’ bones were carved into useful objects, like tools and musical instruments.