The Spanish Conquistadors, inured though they were to hardship and bloodshed, were nonetheless taken aback by the scale and ferocity of Aztec sacrifice. They wrote horrified accounts of sacrificial rituals, and of tzompantli, the racks where thousands of skulls of sacrificial victims were displayed in front of the twin pyramids of the Templo Mayor.
The Spanish invaders tore down the Templo Mayor and paved over the tzompantli. But archeologists in 2015, excavating under old buildings in Mexico City, uncovered the tzompantli (originally built from 1486-1502) again. Here’s a recent account.
The Aztecs are not the only folk to practice human sacrifice. It’s common, especially in the early stages of setting up chiefdoms and states, where it helps to keep commoners and conquered folk properly terrorized. But the scale of sacrifice on the part of the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican societies is extreme. It’s natural to wonder what in the world was going on, whether there is some deeper reason for the cult of killing, underneath the religious rationale.
Some anthropologists have suggested a materialist explanation. The peoples of the New World had few domesticated animals, a legacy in part of mass extinctions millennia earlier that eliminated a lot of potentially domesticable species. In Mesoamerica, turkeys and dogs were about it. In less densely populated areas, Indians could supplement a diet of domesticated plants with game. But in densely settled Mesoamerica, the main source of animal proteins and fat for the elite was other humans. At least so the story goes. Marvin Harris – kind of a “protein explains all human history!” guy – set out this theory in his popular book Cannibals and Kings.
This is intensely controversial. It’s not clear that eating people on this scale makes much sense from an optimal foraging point of view. But at least we can say that the predatory ethos of Aztec rulers makes a contrast with the more pastoral ethos of many Old World rulers
However there are some comparisons between New World and Old World civilizations where the New World comes off looking better. Gini coefficients* – a measure of inequality – are never going to grab the headlines the way Aztec heart sacrifice does. But the figure below shows something interesting.
Figure 3a shows how Gini coefficients change over time in a sample of societies in Eurasia (blue) and North America / Mesoamerica (red), using house size as a measure of wealth. In both cases, the origin of agriculture and the rise of states is associated with increasing inequality. Figure 3b shows the same data, but recalibrated, so that the 0 point on the time scale is set at the origin of agriculture (which happened at different times in different places). The second figure shows a contrast between continents: a further increase in wealth inequality in Eurasia about 5000 years after the origin of agriculture (around 3000 BCE) and on into the Bronze Age, but a steady level of inequality in North America / Mesoamerica. The authors of this study suggest that the greater availability of domesticated animals in Eurasia increased the potential for wealth inequality via “agricultural extensification”, as well as via mounted warrior elites capable of creating (or stimulating the creation of) very large empires.
Result: There is no Templo Major in Eurasia. And there is no Attila or Genghis Khan in North America / Mesoamerica.
* Technical note: Where wealth is distributed perfectly evenly, the Gini coefficient is 0. Where one person owns everything and the other n-1 own nothing, the Gini coefficient is 1 – 1/n.