A few days ago a minor controversy about the cultural context of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica cropped up. A writer at Science, wrote a piece, Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital. The article was good. But it elicited some emotional responses from readers. As one sees in the earliest writings of the Spanish, the Aztec penchant for human sacrifice often results in a moralistic reaction.
The writer of the piece took to Twitter to disagree with the moralistic tone of many who read her article. It being Twitter, her original series of comments were easy to misinterpret or exaggerate, and she had to post a follow-up clarifying some issues. Below is a response to one of her original assertions.
Basically, I agree that our feelings about sacrifice today are irrelevant to understanding it. To understand human history and something scientific that relates to humans it is important to set aside feelings, at least for the moment. That being said, let me remind the reader that this is not the attitude of many science writers when a story has a “social justice” angle. We all know if a science article has a social hook which appeals to emotional or moralistic impulses in the readership, it will probably be injected into it for purposes of clicks and adding an extra layer of meaning and relevance. For various reasons, Aztec human sacrifice is better presented in a dispassionate manner, as Mesoamerican human sacrifice doesn’t lend itself easily to a standard social justice narrative (i.e., the “villains” are not white).
The Aztec Empire, or the Triple Alliance if you prefer, was built on brutality. From what we can tell it was an analog in the New World to what the Assyrian Empire had been in Eurasian antiquity: a polity bound together through brutal coercion.
Here is one tale from Aztec history that is well known:
In 1323, they asked the new ruler of Culhuacan, Achicometl, for his daughter, in order to make her the goddess Yaocihuatl. Unknown to the king, the Mexica actually planned to sacrifice her. The Mexica believed that by doing this the princess would join the gods as a deity. As the story goes, during a festival dinner, a priest came out wearing her flayed skin as part of the ritual. Upon seeing this, the king and the people of Culhuacan were horrified and expelled the Mexica.
Note that the legend is recounted whereby the other native peoples of Mexico were horrified by the Aztec behavior. This highlights the reality that human sacrifice seems to elicit negative reactions generally. It’s not arbitrary. In Carthage Must Be Destroyed the author spends a great deal of time exploring the reality of child sacrifice in that society. A practice in decline in the Phoenician homeland, for some reason it reemerged in the western Mediterranean much more vigorously. Classical observers found the practice grotesque, and their descriptions of Carthaginian child sacrifice were suspected by many scholars as being scurrilous. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the truth has been established by the discovery of bones of children in urns. The key point to note is that ancient observers were just as judgemental as modern people.
Though human sacrifice persisted in some form in many antique societies, it is clear that what was once a common occurrence in the Bronze Age world became rarer with time, until it was no longer socially or ethically acceptable. Researchers in the field of cultural evolution have explored the emergence and decline of human sacrifice. Though there are no current definitive conclusions, it seems likely that it crops up in societies which have transitioned toward being highly inegalitarian. But, it declines again in societies which scale large enough to the point where more abstract ideological and political systems must bind groups of people together. The Classical Western world, India, and China, all seem to be marked by a recollection of normative human sacrifice (e.g., Iphigenia), and a turn away from it.
The inequality aspect is important. Though some people willingly gave themselves as human sacrifices, there are recurrent themes of low-status individuals within the group (e.g., slaves) or outsiders (prisoners of war) being given to the gods. There is debate as to the nature of the Aztec “flower wars”, but one traditional explanation is that they were driven by the need for victims of human sacrifices.
In other words, Aztec human sacrifice can be contextualized in a generalized framework. But that is not where the writer of the original piece went on the Twitter thread. Rather, she seems to have bracketed the practice by modern social and political considerations, “centuries of colonial oppression and destruction.” To be frank, it is a strongly Eurocentric narrative where everything before European colonialism is viewed as a prologue to the true story. The only story that matters. The context of Aztec human sacrifice that matters to many people steeped in this way of thinking is what the Spaniards did to the native peoples of the New World after the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Like ethical tachyons the present blasts back into the past, and reshapes our whole perception of it in current terms. The Aztec tendencies toward brutality, oppression and grotesque customs such as human sacrifice, are inconvenient to this framework.
The cultural conditioning isn’t that of a Western individual who lives in a consumer society at the tail end of a two-century path of growth, domination, and maturation. Rather, the cultural conditioning is of a whole class of intellectuals steeped in understanding all social and historical relations as but mirrors of the one which defined the 19th and 20th century. This viewpoint also asserts that this period, these people, are sui generis. It is profoundly Eurocentric to the bones.
To me when considering the ethical and historical frame of human sacrifice two facts jump out to me. First, it’s an empirical fact that at certain levels of social complexity human sacrifice seems to emerge, and at later levels of social complexity tends to be dampened and abolished. The reason that it tends to be dampened and abolished is probably the reason that the Spanish found it easy to obtain native allies against the Aztec Empire: human sacrifice is a costly and brutal way to foster social cohesion. Across societies, there has been a general tendency to abandon the practice and create psychologically satisfying substitutes which don’t have the bloody downsides.
The second aspect is more primal: humans don’t like to die. It is true that humans will sacrifice themselves, or in the case of Carthaginian nobles, their own children, in exigent circumstances. Human nature exists, and many aspects are universal. The abhorrence of human sacrifice doesn’t emerge out of particular and unique elements of Western colonial culture, it has cropped up in many societies, and I would suggest that the shoe is on the other foot here: those who argue for human sacrifice have to make the argument for it is necessary. And that is why so often humans who are sacrificed are those who can least choose to give their own lives. Slaves, children, prisoners, and criminals.
Unfortunately, the Western colonial narrative looms so large for many moderns that other cultures and other histories are erased in all their complexity. They gain depth and richness only as handmaids to the deconstruction and critique of the Western colonial narrative.