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Why was the Aztec god of war so keen on starfish?

14 April 2022

A spectacular offering dedicated to the ancient Cuauhxicalco building in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan has recently been discovered. It consists of a plethora of organic materials including the remains of corals, puffer fish, seashells and snails, an adult female jaguar, and more than a hundred starfish – by far the largest number of specimens ever excavated in the surroundings of Cuauhxicalco, the most important building of the Aztec culture.

The offering was first discovered in the autumn of 2018 by the members of the Templo Mayor Project, which began back in 1978 and of which I am presently lead archaeologist. It was found beneath many tonnes of debris, located on the site of a colonial-era house (known as the Mayorazgo de Nava Chavez), built by the Spanish a few decades after the conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The Cuauhxicalco itself, a round building located in front of the Templo Mayor, was found in 2010 and is depicted in both indigenous and Spanish chronicles. It was used for ritual activities, including prestigious funeral ceremonies involving the cremation and burial of warriors and rulers.

During the last 40 years of archaeological excavations, the Templo Mayor Project has found more than 200 offerings, each placed in strategic positions within the sacred precinct. This has enabled us to associate them with particular religious rites. Laid inside a rectangular stone box, 130cm in length, and covered with stone slabs, the recent discovery is located in the exact centre of the Cuauhxicalco building, and can therefore be linked to the south side of the Templo Mayor building, which is dedicated to the principal deity of the Aztecs: Huitzilopochtli, the god of war.

Aztec offering

The jaguar’s skeleton is covered with starfish and dressed in warrior’s clothing. Photo: Mirsa Islas/Courtesy PTM

More than 160 starfish were found covering the jaguar skeleton. The species is believed to be Nidorellia armata (Gray 1840), found commonly on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. This organism, colloquially called ‘chocolate chip star’, is yellow to orange in colour with brown spots. The starfish was an important symbol for several cultures in ancient Mesoamerica, and their presence in art is well documented. They were often associated with the night sky – resembling the stars as they do. The colour and patterning of this particular type of starfish also resembles that of jaguar’s skin, which is perhaps the reason why the Aztec priests opted for this species.

The sheer number of specimens gives us cause to wonder how the Aztec empire managed to collect and transport these animals more than 300km, from the coast to the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan. Starfish die shortly after being pulled out of the water, so the logistics for transportation had to be carefully planned and promptly executed.

Several provinces on the Pacific shoreline, where the starfish were collected, were conquered by the emperor Ahuitzotl (1486–1502), which gives us a clue as to the date of this offering. Material evidence further suggests that the jaguar may have been dressed in warrior’s clothing – gripping a spear thrower (atlatl) with its left paw and a circular pectoral known as an anahuatl on its back.

The excavations will continue over the following months, which should give us a clearer understanding of the ritual meaning behind the starfish covering the jaguar. It is clear for the present that this offering is one of the largest and richest of its type, and the staff at the Templo Mayor Project are really excited to continue with this research in the heart of Mexico City.