Aztec Sacrifice & Cannibalism Ritual or Diet?

Aztec Sacrifice & Cannibalism Ritual or Diet?

The Aztec Empire existed in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries in central Mexico. The Empire was in effect a triple alliance of city states centered around the capital of Tenochtitlan from where the Aztecs governed their Empire.

Aztec human sacrifice is a well documented phenomenon. Hernán Cortés, leader of the first wave of Spanish Conquistadores, witnessed and reported numerous instances of Aztec sacrifice. Such sacrifices often involved the consumption of human flesh, a subject which still provokes much debate today. Were these acts of cannibalism simply a form of communion with the Aztec Gods, or was there another reason behind the bloodshed?

Aztec Sacrifice & Cannibalism – An Important Supplement in the Aztec Food Supply?

In 1977, anthropologist and historian Michael Harner published a new theory of Aztec human sacrifice. In The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice, Harner theorized that “Human sacrifice was meant to appease the appetites of the gods — and of the Aztecs themselves”. He argued that the huge numbers of human sacrifices attributed to the Aztec Empire were not simply offerings to the Gods, but that human flesh was needed as a vital supplement to the Aztec diet.

Despite being an advanced agricultural society, Harner claims that overhunting of wild game and the absence of herbivores for domestication in the region left the Aztecs with severe dietary shortages. The Aztecs intensified agricultural production but, according to Harner, “their ingenuity could not correct their lack of a suitable domesticable herbivore that could provide animal protein and fats”.

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While, for example, the Inca Empire of South America had llama and alpaca for domestication, the Aztec food supply was lacking sufficient quantities of meat. With an estimated 250,000 human sacrifices each year in the Aztec Empire, Harner raises the question of what exactly the Aztecs did with such a huge amount of bodies.

As a form of survival, and as an extra incentive for war and the claiming of captives for human sacrifice, Harner argues that this institutionalized form of cannibalism was born of necessity. He concludes: “Gruesome as these practices may seem, an ecological perspective and population pressure theory render the Aztec emphasis on human sacrifice acceptable as a natural and rational response to the material conditions of their existence”.

Was Aztec Human Sacrifice Not Necessary for the Aztec Food Supply?

In 1978, a response was published arguing against the theories proposed by Harner. Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano, in his work entitled Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity?, refutes the claims of Harner. While Montellano does not doubt that cannibalism took place in the Aztec Empire, he maintains that it was purely for ritualistic purposes.

As part of his counter-claim Montellano goes into great detail regarding the Aztec food supply. The Aztecs ate, and had access to, a wide range of meats including waterfowl, armadillo, rattlesnakes, deer, dogs, fish, frogs and a wide variety of insects. Montellano states that “All of these species are animal sources of protein that could be used to supplement diets”. The Aztec capital also received a huge amount of food as tribute each year.

To further find fault with Harner’s reasoning, Montellano looks at the Aztec records for both ritual ceremonies and the agricultural cycle. The correlation he finds is in direct conflict with Harner’s ideas: “The greatest amount of cannibalism, however, coincided with times of harvest, not with periods of scarcity, and is better explained as a thanksgiving”.

The conclusion of Montellano, therefore, is that “Cannibalism was not motivated by starvation but by a belief that this was a way to commune with the gods”.

Aztec Sacrifice and the Aztec Cannibalism Debate

While Aztec human sacrifice and Aztec cannibalism are not doubted by historians, both are subject to speculation in regard to scale and motivation respectively. While the ideas put forward by both Harner and Montellano are valuable additions to the study of the Aztec civilization, both are hampered by often unreliable or biased sources.

The reports of the Conquistadors themselves, for example, frequently exaggerated the ‘monstrous’ or ‘savage’ practices of the Aztecs in order to garner more favor and support from Europe. In turn, information fed to Cortés and his men from native enemies of the Aztecs was heavily biased as well as suffering from inadequate translation. The strength of the Montellano counter-claim is reinforced by his acknowledgement of this very issue.


Harner, Michael – The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice, Natural History Magazine, April 1977, Vol. 86, No.4

Montellano, Bernard R. Ortiz de – Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity?, Science Magazine, 12th May 1978, Vol. 200

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