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What if the Aztecs just had a very different attitude to war?

26 January 2019

Recent finds at the site of Ndchjian-Techucan in the Mexican state of Puebla provide archaeologists with evidence that at least one of the site’s buildings was a temple dedicated to the deity Xipe Totec, known as the ‘Flayed Lord’.  Xipe Totec is said to be the god of spring and new vegetation, and the patron of goldsmiths.

Spanish accounts of the 16th century claim that priests paid tribute to Xipe Totec by wearing the skins of captives who had been killed. Archaeologists, headed by Noemí Castillo Tejero, director of the Southern State of Puebla’s Central Popoloca Project, were excavating a wall which frames the central plaza of the site when, at the base of stairs leading to a platform supporting the ruins of a temple, they encountered two red-painted and plastered altars. The recent finds, two stones carved as 70cm-high stylised skulls as well as the stone torso of a statue of a male figure, are associated with the altars. The archaeologists believe that the stones were originally set in front of the altars, but the placement of the statue is not known exactly.

The torso, 80cm high, has attributes that identify the figure as Xipe Totec. In the back are features that simulate the tying of the skin in which the figure was ‘dressed’. There is also a skirt of feathers. The left arm exhibits the hanging right hand of the flayed individual whose skin the figure is wearing.

It is normally claimed with regard to Xipe Totec that individuals were ‘sacrificed’ to the god. But the concept of ‘sacrifice’ of humans to and for a deity is a claim inherited from Spanish conquerors, normalised by Christianity. The idea is rarely challenged, because people like to think of the Mexica (Aztecs) – or the Popoloca, their predecessors in Puebla – as a strange lot: people who did the sorts of weird things that we would never do, but that we know all about from stories, plays, and films.

The people said to have been killed are called ‘captives’ in the Spanish accounts, which tells us that they were victims of conflict or warfare. Thanks to film-makers such as Mel Gibson (who is not the first by any means), it is assumed that indigenous armies combed the countryside for ‘captives’ to kill. Why is it generally believed that long-lived, successful civilisations in Mexico and Central America would have wasted time and energy on such a counter-productive enterprise?

There is another perspective. In the rules of engagement in war, 16th-century Spanish society sanctioned the killing of men on the field of battle. The Aztecs, however, thought it dishonourable to kill on the battlefield. They aimed instead to capture individuals in hand-to-hand fighting and bring captives back to the captors’ town or city, where the captives’ fates were decided. This manner of fighting suggests that the impetus to war was economic: the appropriation of the wealth of the captive by the captor. The fate of the captive could be death, but there were other options. In the written records of the Maya, for example, royal or noble captives from a battle often appear later as vassals of their captors. If captive individuals were indeed killed at centres dedicated to Xipe Totec, Aztec rules of engagement in warfare may well have been the justification. Western rules today allow killing on the battlefield but not if an individual is taken prisoner. Among the Aztecs, the rules seem to have been exactly the opposite.

Elizabeth Graham is professor of Mesoamerican archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.