Thursday, 12 February 2009

Mass grave in Mexico from the colonial era

by Kathryn Hadley

A mass grave from the time of the Spanish conquest has recently been discovered in Mexico City raising new questions about the fate of the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan, and its inhabitants following its conquest led by Hernan Cortes in 1521. The discovery was announced on Tuesday. The four-by-10-metre burial site was discovered by archaeologists initially searching for a palace complex in the Tlatelolco area, to the North of the city. It contains 49 skeletons laid out in neat lines all lying face-up with their arms crossed. The skeletons are mostly those of young men, but also include those of two children, one teenager and an elderly person wearing a ring. Several skeletons showed broken bones that had mended suggesting that they may be the bodies of warriors.

Salvador Guilliem, the leader of the excavations for Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, described the discovery as completely unexpected:

"We were completely taken by surprise. We didn't expect to find this massive
funeral complex".

Tlatelolco was a city-state on the northern part of an island on Lake Texcoco. It is believed to have been founded in 1337, fifteen years after the foundation of Tenochtitlan (to the South of the island), as an independent city-state. The two city-states maintained close trading links, however, and at the end of the 15th century Tlatelolco became subject to Tenochtitlan. The Aztec empire was formally founded by Itzcoatl in 1428. By 1500, the Aztecs had conquered most of central Mexico and the empire reached its height under Moctezuma II, who ruled from 1502 to 1520. When Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan on November 8th, 1519, accounts by Spanish conquistadores described the city as one of the largest in the world on a par with Paris, Constantinople and Venice (ref. Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s account of the conquest Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva EspanaThe Conquest of New Spain). Tenochtitlan was eventually conquered on August 31st, 1521. The area where the burial was found is believed to be the site of the last Indian resistance to the Spanish during the month long battle for the city. Relatively little is known, however, about the period immediately after the fall of the city, when Cortes allegedly razed most pyramids and temples and abandoned the city. He fled to the outskirts of the city before returning some time later to build a Spanish style city on the ruins of the Aztec capital.

According to Guilliem, the indigenous population buried in the grave either died in battle against the invading Spanish army or from diseases that killed large parts of the native population in 1545 and 1576. Millions notably perished in a four-year epidemic of hemorrhagic fever that broke out in 1545 killing 80% of the indigenous population. The discovery has also raised many questions that have yet to be answered.

The burial is particularly unusual because the positioning of the bodies suggests that they were buried following Christian traditions. It differs from previously discovered conquest-era graves, where the remains of Indians who died from epidemics were haphazardly thrown in pits, regardless of gender or age. The corpses were, however, buried with pre-Hispanic artefacts, such as copper necklaces and bone buttons, and some appear to have been wrapped in large cactus leaves rather than placed in European-style coffins. The graves also revealed evidence of Aztec style rituals in which incense or animals were burnt in an incense burner.

Guilliem has suggested that the burials may have been ordered by the Spanish but carried out by the indigenous population. Susan Gillespie, an archaeologist from the University of Florida, did not participate in the excavations, but questioned why the Spanish would have bothered with the careful burial of Aztec warriors. Moreover, if the burial was carried out by the indigenous population, the Indians would have been more likely to cremate any honored dead. Guilliem suggested that the Aztecs may have returned to bury their dead during the interim period, between the conquest of Tenochtitlan and its later reconstruction. Alternatively, the victims may have been held captive by the Spanish for some time before being killed later, as was the leader of the Aztec resistance, emperor Cuauhtémoc. It is also possible the bodies were those of disease victims or rebellious Indians from after 1521.

Guilliem explained that more research was needed and the skeletons analysed in order to determine the cause of their death. Scientists expect to uncover at least 50 more bodies as excavations continue at the site.

For more information, read our articles:
>> Aztec Warfare - Ross Hassig offers a reinterpretation of the culture of Aztec warfare, which may have been distorted by Spanish accounts in an attempt to justify the Spanish conquest
>> If Columbus Had Not Called – Brian Fagan reviews the state of the Aztec empire on the eve of the Spanish conquest questioning what would have happened if the conquistadores had not arrived. (The article includes a quote of Bernal Diaz’s description of Tenochtitlan).
>> Aztecs: A New Perspective – John M.D. Pohl reviews recent scholarship about the Aztec empire.

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