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Child sacrifice in pre-Columbian cultures

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The practice of child sacrifice in Pre-Columbian cultures, in particular Mesoamerican and South American cultures, is well documented both in the archaeological records and in written sources. The exact ideologies behind child sacrifice in different pre-Columbian cultures are unknown but it is often thought to have been performed in order to placate certain gods.


Olmec culture

Although there is no uncontroversial evidence of child sacrifice in the Olmec civilization, full skeletons of newborn or unborn infants, as well as dismembered femurs and skulls, have been found at the El Manatí sacrificial bog. These bones are associated with sacrificial offerings, particular wooden busts. It is not known yet how the infants met their deaths.[1]

Some researchers have also associated infant sacrifice with Olmec ritual art showing limp "were-jaguar" babies, most famously in La Venta's Altar 5 (to the right) or Las Limas figure. Definitive answers will need to await further findings.

Maya culture

In 2005 a mass grave of one- to two-year-old sacrificed children was found in the Maya region of Comalcalco. The sacrifices were apparently performed for consecration purposes when building temples at the Comalcalco acropolis.[2]

There are also skulls suggestive of child sacrifice dating to the Maya periods. Mayanists believe that, like the Aztecs, the Maya performed child sacrifice in specific circumstances. In the Classic period some Maya art that depict the extraction of children's hearts during the ascension to the throne of the new kings, or at the beginnings of the Maya calendar have been studied.[3] In one of these cases, Stela 11 in Piedras Negras, Guatemala, a sacrificed boy can be seen. Other scenes of sacrificed boys are visible on painted jars.

In Yucatan, child sacrifice continued until the Postclassic Period and even during the first years of the Colonial Period.[4]

Teotihuacan culture

There is evidence of child sacrifice in Teotihuacano culture. As early as 1906, Leopoldo Batres uncovered burials of children at the four corners of the Pyramid of the Sun. Archaeologists have found newborn skeletons associated with altars, leading some to suspect "deliberate death by infant sacrifice".[5]

Toltec culture

In 2007, archaeologists announced that they had analyzed the remains of 24 children, aged 5 to 15, found buried together with a figurine of Tlaloc. The children, found near the ancient ruins of the Toltec capital of Tula, had been decapitated. The remains have been dated to AD 950 to 1150.

"To try and explain why there are 24 bodies grouped in the same place, well, the only way is to think that there was a human sacrifice", archaeologist Luis Gamboa said.[6]

Aztec culture

Aztec religion is one of the most widely documented pre-Hispanic cultures. Diego Durán in the Book of the Gods and Rites wrote about the religious practices devoted to the water gods, Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue, and a very important part of their annual ritual included the sacrifice of infants and young children.

According to Bernardino de Sahagún, the Aztecs believed that, if sacrifices were not given to Tlaloc, the rain would not come and their crops would not grow. Tlaloc required the tears of the young so their tears would wet the earth. As a result, priests made children cry before the infanticidal ritual sacrifice, sometimes by tearing off their nails.[7]

Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl, an Aztec descendant and the author of the Codex Ixtlilxochitl, claimed that one in five children of the Mexica subjects was killed annually. These high figures have not been confirmed by historians. Hernán Cortés describes an event in his Letters:

And they would take their children to kill and sacrifice to their Idols. [8]

Archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children sacrified to Tlaloc (and a few to Ehecátl Quetzalcóatl) in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. [9]

In Xochimilco, the remains of a three-to-four-year-old boy were found. The skull was broken and the bones had an orange/yellowish cast, a vitreous texture, and porous and compacted tissue. Aztecs have been known to boil down remains of some sacrificed victims to remove the flesh and place the skull in the tzompantli. Archaeologists concluded that the skull was boiled and that it cracked due to the ebullition of the brain mass. Photographs of the skull have been published in specialized journals.[10]

The table below shows the festivals of the 18-month year of the Aztec calendar and the deities with which the festivals were associated. In History of the Things of New Spain Sahagún confesses he was aghast at the fact that, during the first month of the year, the child sacrifices were approved by their own parents, who also ate their children.[11] Child sacrifices appear in red on the column at the far right:

Name of the Mexican month and its Gregorian equivalent Deities and human sacrifices
I Atlacacauallo (from February 2 to February 21) Tláloc, Chalchitlicue, Ehécatl Sacrifice of children and captives to the water deities
II Tlacaxipehualiztli (from February 22 to March 13) Xipe Tótec, Huitzilopochtli, Tequitzin-Mayáhuel Sacrifice of captives; gladiatorial fighters; dances of the priest wearing the skin of the flayed victims
III Tozoztontli (from March 14 to April 2) Coatlicue, Tlaloc, Chalchitlicue, Tona Type of sacrifice: extraction of the heart. Burying of the flayed human skins. Sacrifices of children
IV Hueytozoztli (from April 3 to April 22) Cintéotl, Chicomecacóatl, Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl Sacrifice of a maid; of boy and girl
V Toxcatl (from April 23 to May 12) Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, Tlacahuepan, Cuexcotzin Sacrifice of captives by extraction of the heart
VI Etzalcualiztli (from May 13 to June 1) Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl Sacrifice by drowning and extraction of the heart
VII Tecuilhuitontli (from June 2 to July 21) Huixtocihuatl, Xochipilli Sacrifice by extraction of the heart
VIII Hueytecuihutli (from June 22 to July 11) Xilonen, Quilaztli-Cihacóatl, Ehécatl, Chicomelcóatl Sacrifice of a decapitated woman and extraction of her heart
IX Tlaxochimaco (from July 12 to July 31) Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, Mictlantecuhtli Sacrifice by starvation in a cave or temple
X Xocotlhuetzin (from August 1 to August 20) Xiuhtecuhtli, Ixcozauhqui, Otontecuhtli, Chiconquiáhitl, Cuahtlaxayauh, Coyolintáhuatl, Chalmecacíhuatl Sacrifices to the fire gods by burning the victims
XI Ochpaniztli (from August 21 to September 9) Toci, Teteoinan, Chimelcóatl-Chalchiuhcíhuatl, Atlatonin, Atlauhaco, Chiconquiáuitl, Cintéotl Sacrifice of a decapitated young woman to Toci, she was skinned and a young man wore her skin; sacrifice of captives by hurling from a height and extraction of the heart
XII Teoleco (from September 10 to September 29) Xochiquétzal Sacrifices by fire; extraction of the heart
XIII Tepeihuitl (from September 30 to October 19) Tlaloc-Napatecuhtli, Matlalcueye, Xochitécatl, Mayáhuel, Milnáhuatl, Napatecuhtli, Chicomecóatl, Xochiquétzal Sacrifices of children, two noble women, extraction of the heart and flaying; ritual cannibalism
XIV Quecholli (from October 20 to November 8) Mixcóatl-Tlamatzincatl, Coatlicue, Izquitécatl, Yoztlamiyáhual, Huitznahuas Sacrifice by bludgeoning, decapitation and extraction of the heart
XV Panquetzaliztli (from November 9 to November 28) Huitzilopochtli Massive sacrifices of captives and slaves by extraction of the heart
XVI Atemoztli (from November 29 to December 18) Tlaloques Sacrifices of children, and slaves by decapitation
XVII Tititl (from December 19 to January 7) Tona-Cozcamiauh, Ilamatecuhtli, Yacatecuhtli, Huitzilncuátec Sacrifice of a woman by extraction of the heart and decapitated afterwards
XVIII Izcalli (from January 8 to January 27) Ixozauhqui-Xiuhtecuhtli, Cihuatontli, Nancotlaceuhqui Sacrifices of victims representing Xiuhtecuhtli and their women (each four years), and captives. Hour: night, New Fire
Nemontemi (from January 28 to February 1) Five ominous days at the end of the year, no ritual, general fasting

South America

Archaeologists have also uncovered physical evidence of child sacrifice at several other pre-Columbian cultures. For example, the Moche of Northern Peru sacrificed teenagers en masse, as archaeologist Steve Bourget found when he uncovered the bones of forty-two male adolescents in 1995.[12]

Inca culture

Capacocha was the Inca practice of human sacrifice, mainly using children. The Incas performed child sacrifices during or after important events, such as the death of the Sapa Inca (emperor) or during a famine. As sacrificial victims, they selected children who were physically perfect, because these were the best they could give their gods. They dressed the children in fine clothing and jewelry and escorted them to Cuzco to meet the emperor where a feast was held in their honor. Then, high priests took the victims to high mountaintops for sacrifice. They gave the children an intoxicating drink to minimize pain, fear, and resistance, then killed them by strangulation, by a blow to the head or by leaving them to lose consciousness in the extreme cold and die of exposure.[13] Early colonial Spanish missionaries wrote about this practice but only recently have archaeologists such as Johan Reinhard begun to find the bodies of these victims on Andean mountaintops, naturally mummified by the dry conditions found in these environments.

North America

Mound 72 at the Mississippian culture site of Cahokia contained the remains of "scores of clearly sacrificed female retainers" as well as four headless and handless male skeletons. The roughly contemporaenous site of Dickson Mounds, some 100 miles (150 km) to the north, also contained a mass grave with four headless male skeletons.[14]

The Pawnee practiced an annual Morning Star ceremony, which included the sacrifice of a young girl. Though the ritual continued, the sacrifice was discontinued in the 19th Century.[15]

The Iroquois are said to have occasionally sent a maiden to the Great Spirit.[16]


  1. Ortíz C., Ponciano; Rodríguez, María del Carmen (1999) "Olmec Ritual Behavior at El Manatí: A Sacred Space" in Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica, eds. Grove, D. C.; Joyce, R. A., Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 225 - 254 (specifically p. 249).
  2. Marí, Carlos (27 December 2005). Evidencian sacrificios humanos en Comalcaco: Hallan entierro de menores mayas. Reforma. 
  3. Stuart, David (2003). "La ideología del sacrificio entre los mayas". Arqueología mexicana XI, 63: 24–29. 
  4. Ibid. article by David Stuart.
  5. Serrano Sanchez, Carlos (1993) "Funerary Practices and Human Sacrifice in Teotihuacan Burials" " Kathleen Berrin, Esther Pasztory, eds., Teotihuacan, Art from the City of the Gods, Thames and Hudson, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, ISBN 0-500-27767-2, p. 113-114.
  6. Monica Medel (April 2007). "Mexico finds bones suggesting Toltec child sacrifice". Reuters. Retrieved 2007-04-17. 
  7. Duverger, Christian (2005). La flor letal. Fondo de cultura económica. pp. 128–29. 
  8. [1] – manuscript in Spanish
  9. [2] – article in Spanish
  10. Talavera González, Jorge Arturo; Juan Martín Rojas Chávez (2003). "Evidencias de sacrificio humano en restos óseos". Arqueología mexicana XI, 63: 30–34. 
  11. Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España, ed. a cargo de Ángel Ma. Garibay (México: Editorial Porrúa, 2006). p. 97
  12. [3] – Discovery Channel article
  13. Reinhard, Johan (November 1999). "A 6,700 metros niños incas sacrificados quedaron congelados en el tiempo". National Geographic, Spanish version: 36–55. 
  14. Conrad, p. 130.
  15. Pawnee ritual
  16. Religion and Conflict: before Columbus


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This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Child sacrifice in pre-Columbian cultures. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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