Excavations at an archaeological site in Tlaxcala have revealed that an indigenous tribe captured a group of about 550 Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century and then proceeded to sacrifice them over a period of several months.
The most recent excavation season at the Zultépec-Tecoaque site may well be one of the most important for revealing history of the Spanish conquest and the earliest interactions between the peoples of Mesoamerica and the Spaniards.
Here, previously excavated evidence hints at one of the first prolonged periods of cohabitation between the two cultures.
As Hernán Cortés, his conquistadores and their allied natives made their way from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, a group of about 550 people, including women, children and African and native slaves, split from the main convoy.
It was in June 1520 when the group encountered a local people known as the Acolhuas, who promptly took the newcomers prisoner.
The Acolhua town of Zultépec, in order to accommodate the sudden population increase, had to be remade in very short notice. Evidence of rushed and ad hoc construction of facilities to hold the captives has been uncovered by archaeologists.
After a first phase of digging ended in 2010, several years of research on nearly 15,000 unearthed artifacts —including at least 200 that were clearly of European origin— strongly hints at a six-month period in which the Acolhua lived with the Spanish group.
The natives executed prisoners every few days, sometimes ceremonially on their central and southern plazas, sometimes in close vicinity to the holding cells and in earshot of the rest of the prisoner population. The grisly sacrifices didn’t discriminate between the prisoners; warriors, women and infants were all victims.
Some specialists have theorized that some of the clay figurines discovered represent Spanish or African people. If true, it would be one of the earliest appearances of this kind of representation in the history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
One particular figurine seems to have been directly inspired by European culture as it resembles something not quite human. Instead it has an angel’s face on one side and a demon with goat horns on the other.
Experts differ over what happened after the sacrifices. Some claim that there’s enough evidence on the remaining skeletons to conclude that the Acolhua ate their victims, while others warn that such claims are often based on the Europeans’ bias and not supported by material evidence.
It isn’t clear why the main Spanish force took six months to retaliate against the Acolhua, and when Cortés finally arrived in Zultepec, a tzompantli — a wooden rack or palisade where the skulls of the sacrificial victims were displayed— provided a grim welcome.
Evidence also suggests that the Acolhua tried to quickly abandon their town and hide the evidence of the sacrifices.
At some point the town was renamed Tecoaque, which in the native Nahuatl language means “the place where they ate them.”
While the Spaniards subsequently destroyed the Acolhua town, the natives’ efforts to hide what they had done actually helped preserve the evidence of what had happened.
The sacrifices, say experts, were a call for help and protection from their gods at a time when strange foreigners were invading their lands.
The Tecoaque discoveries are relevant to the history of the conquest because for the first time there is actual archaeological evidence of resistance to the Spanish onslaught by native people.
Archaeologists on the Zultépec-Tecoaque dig site are now expecting to find evidence of the day-to-day lives of the prisoners. Once the current digging season is over, 20% of the 32-hectare site will have been studied and documented.
Photos: Melitón Tapia, INAH