Nearly 500 years ago, Andres de Tapia, a Spanish soldier and member of Hernan Cortes’ conquistador party, wrote down his account of some of the things he saw while in Mexico. One site that struck fear into the hearts of de Tapia and his compatriots were towers made of thousands of human skulls. He called these structures the Huey Tzompantli, and he claimed that they were made of the heads of defeated warriors.
Such towers were meant to serve as warning to the tribesmen of what might happen to them if they stopped conquering neighboring tribes or if they themselves were ever defeated or taken in battle. The captured, defeated warriors would probably have been sacrificed to the gods first before being beheaded. The heads likely would have first been put on public display before being placed in the tower.
Archaeologists have long assumed that the skulls would have been those of male warriors killed in tribal battles between warring Aztec clans. However, one of these skull towers has been recently uncovered, and it has thrown this assumption into question.
The skull tower that was found was comprised of at least 675 whole skulls. Fragments of many more human skulls were also unearthed. While there were many skulls belonging to men, there were also many that belonged to women and children. Since women and children were not likely to have gone to war, archaeologists are now rethinking the assumed purpose and origin of the towers.
The skulls were located in a site next to the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, which used to be the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. This cathedral was built over one of the most important Aztec temples in history, called the Templo Mayor by historians. The newly discovered skull tower was found on one corner of the chapel of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, the sun, and human sacrifice. This chapel formed a part of the larger Templo Mayor, which also contained chapels dedicated to other gods.
Work on the dig site is ongoing, and the base of the temple and skull rack have not yet been uncovered. Researchers believe they will uncover many more skulls before their work is through. They also hope to make further discoveries that will help them uncover the mystery of the skulls of the women and children.