History Stories

Archaeologists in Mexico City have found the skeleton of a child at the foot of an ancient temple, believed to been sacrificed to the Aztec god of sun and war.

Some 600 years ago, the Templo Mayor stood 200 feet high in the center of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. It was a place of worship, where people came to make offerings to the god Huitzilopochtli and perform such rituals as bloodletting, the burning of copal and, sometimes, human sacrifice. In the 16th century, it was destroyed by the Spanish to make room for a new cathedral, leaving a treasure trove of archaeological evidence beneath its foundation stones.

It was here that excavators recently discovered the remains of a child’s body late last year, according to a report in National Geographic Spain. “Offering 176,” as the grisly discovery has been dubbed, is thought to have come from sometime in the 15th century.

The boy was likely between eight and ten years old, and had been dressed as the fearsome god of war himself. Thousands of objects were buried with him: copper bells, snail shells and colored beads once hung around his ankles and neck. Though some of these have long since worn away, others are recognizably green jadeite, brought from Guatemala, and an unknown blue stone. Like many images of the god, he wore a wooden breastplate. A bird’s wing, thought to be connected to the deity sometimes known as the Hummingbird of the South, was found nearby.

The bones were discovered at the foot of the Aztec temple, accompanied by several objects buried with him. (Credit: Mirsa Islands/Proyec/INAH)

The bones were discovered at the foot of the Aztec temple, accompanied by several objects buried with him. (Credit: Mirsa Islands/Proyec/INAH)

Archaeologists describe how, even at his very young age, his teeth were worn, while he appeared to have been suffering from multiple infections in his mouth. So far, researchers have found only one other child believed to have been killed as an offering. Aged just five years old at the time of his gruesome death, his heart had been removed by priests. It’s not clear whether this boy experienced the same demise: In a statement from the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, archaeologists described it as a mystery, as yet unsolved. “It can only be said that at the time of his death he was dressed like Huitzilopochtli himself.”

The temple seems to have been the site of many such macabre sacrifices. Other recent discoveries including an apparently public display of hundreds of human skulls, stacked over 100 feet in height. This child, however, was not put on show. Instead, for his burial, priests raised a series of heavy stone slabs from the floor to expose the soft ground below. They dug a deep pit there, and buried him in an unusual cylindrical box, filled with stones and stucco—the first of its kind that archaeologists report having seen.

Who was this child, how and why did he die, and what do these many objects reveal? The National Institute hopes that further study will reveal the answers—putting this child, and the mysteries he presents, to rest once and for all.

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