Tuesday, November 16, 2010


This post begins with a comment overheard at a friend’s party. It was reported, and then discussion dismissed by claiming that everyone knew it was true, that the Aztec empire engaged in large scale cannibalism. To make this harder to believe the reporter added that they had “baby farms” as this was needed to meet their protein needs. Presumably this protein deficiency arose from environmental degradation. Knowing a little about anthropology, I suspected this couldn’t possibly be true. A little research turns up an interesting debate. On one side are those such as M. Harner (1977) who make the kinds of claims reported above (except for the notion of baby farms) . This argument is then advanced by others. Others, however, (see B. Ortiz de Montellano 1978) claim there is really no supportive evidence and suggest the claims derive from wild interpretations of murals and questionable claims about the lack of protein in the zone in question here. Some of the evidence the original claim makers use derive from early accounts written by the Spanish and these can easily be dismissed if one reads them as distortions in order to demonize the Aztecs and thus justify the brutality against the people and their conversion to Christianity. Similar wild claims have been reported about “savages” in North America”, claims used to justify brutality and conversion to Christianity.

There is no question, however, about the presence of cannibalism among the Aztec. They appear to have eaten parts of those offered to the gods as a sacrifice. Those sacrificed were believed to take on a sacred quality and thus to eat the sacrificial lamb, so to speak, was then to partake of the sacred. This activity was restricted to the elite of the society.

A small aside here regarding the numbers of people sacrificed. In a 1977 article Harner reviews the claims made. He reports that there is some consensus that the number was around 20,000 people each year while other estimates go as high as 250,000. These numbers come from very questionable evidence, in essence what they have done is take one sacrificial alter for which they believe there is good data and then multiply this number by the number of alters in central Mexico. If we accept the higher number the claim is they were eating 1% of the total population: talk a bout eating yourself out of house and home!

It is not too far fetched to see a link here to the act of communion in the Catholic church. Religious members partake of the body and blood of Jesus (although there is some debate about the idea of transubstantiation, that the wafer really is the body of Jesus) and thus take on some qualities of the sacred. The difference is that Jesus was sacrificed on our behalf and rather than repeat the act of sacrifice the act of communion offers a less messy substitute, and is open to everyone. One has to imagine that behind this religious belief is a history of cannibalism or the act would make no sense. This bring me back to the day of the dead.

One of the features of the day of the dead celebration is the preparation of, and consumption of, pan de muertos. Two types of bread are prepared. First, a loaf that looks like a small person and is placed on or around the ofrenda to represent the dead. Second a bread that has a representation of bones on its surface. This bread represents the spirit or soul of the person and is to be consumed. In this way we appear to be eating our ancestors, or at least their spirit.
ABOUT PHOTO: taken in the Museum of Anthropology. Objects like this were used to hold the hearts of the sacrificial victims. Small on in the back ground is from Ihuatzio, Michoacan.

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