Friday Weird Science: mmm, I love the taste of man-flesh in the morning! This is technically history as well as science. Even though it was published in 1978, it actually refers to the cannibalistic practices of the Aztecs, whose empire was taken over by Cortes in 1521 when the Spanish conquistadores first came to the New World. If you’ve never heard of the Aztecs (who referred to themselves as ‘Mexicas’, and who are also referred to as the ‘Nahua’), they are usually known to history as a warrior culture, famous for the use of human sacrifice and cannibalism. There was a vast aristocracy (25% of the main population of the capital), an honor which could only be earned with valor in combat.
The one thing the Aztec empire was really known for was human sacrifice. This was a pretty common practice in mesoamerica, but apparently the Aztecs took human sacrifice to an entirely new level. It is estimated that they sacrificed between 1 and 5 PERCENT of their population PER YEAR. Of course, many theories arose as to why this number was so incredibly high (example, the population of the capital city, Tenochtitlan, was estimated at around 300,000, which mean you’d sacrifice 15,000 people per year). And of course, many of those sacrificed were also EATEN by the ruling class.
So why cannibalism? What drives people to eat each other? For a while, the predominant theory about Aztec cannibalism was that the Aztec people could not obtain enough protein from their primarily corn and bean diet, and therefore, they had to eat each other, and this was highly ritualized to make it ok. A Dr. Harner publicized this theory in the New York Times in 1977.
And here’s where we get to what I like about old science. While many people think that science in former years was more formal in correspondance than today, Dr. Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, in his response to Harner, is so pointed you can almost see him looming over the other guy and screaming “YOU ARE WRONG!!! EPIC FAIL!!!” How many people these days would come out and say in Science “I think Harner’s thesis is FLAWED.” Usually, people say, it might have some flaws, or there are some alternate interpretations, or…but no. FLAWED. Ouchie.
And there are other good things about this paper, for example “assume that all victims are 60 kg males consisting of 16 percent protein with a digestability of 90 percent…skillful butchering would give a 60 percent dressed yield.” It’s impressive how seriously these people take their calculations, though also a bit frightening…
Ortix de Montellano. “Aztec Cannibalism: an Ecological Necessity?” Science, May, 1978.

So I’ll just repeat that top bit for effect: 1-5% of the entire human population sacrified per year. Some eaten. Mostly prisoners of war, women, and children.
Ortiz (I’m going to call him Ortiz, and I hope doesn’t mind the informality, but ‘Ortiz de Montellano’ is a wretched thing to type over and over) provides tables galore to show that cannibalism was NOT in fact necessary to fulfil the protein requirements of the Aztec empire, and in fact couldn’t even provide a significant part of the protein in the diet. Even better, he provides examples of nutrition and information that states that the Aztec empire was not, as everyone seemed to think, an Empire on the perpetual edge of starvation. The Aztec people had lots of sources of protein, even without domesticated animals, including insects, fish, iguanas, armadillos, and lots of ducks and other waterfowl. Not only that, the way corn tortillas are traditionally prepared actually enhances both their protein and calcium content, not to mention the fact that beans have a substantial amount of protein as well.
Harner’s idea was that great famines, of which the Aztecs suffered at least two during the building of the empire, drove the rise of cannibalism as a dietary supplement. Ortiz points out that there are two main reactions to famine, neither of which are cannibalism. First, intensify your growing. Second, snatch the food from people around you who have some. There is a lot of evidence that the Aztecs used both of these methods to great effect (one of the things in this article that wowed me is the fact that Tenochtitlan was on an island in the middle of a lake. The citizens actually had growing platforms around the city, made of mud scooped from the lake bottom and set on stilts, to do their own farming, so their crops never dried out and were always near a source of irrigation. Now that is some cool old-school innovation.)
The next point Ortiz makes is this: if the common man is fighting, and fighting bravely, and giving himself willingly up to sacrifice after combant, WHY would they be sacrificing themselves if it was only for dietary reasons? You can bet I would be running like hell from being a prisoner of war if I knew I was going to be someone’s dinner. Not only that, but sacrifices were distributed as meat only to those of high status, but how would those people earn their high status in combat without adequate protein in the first place?
And finally, Ortiz makes what I consider to be a very important point, though he doesn’t play it up as much. During Cortes’ siege of Tenochtitlan, much of the populace actually starved to death before he won the city. The native chroniclers of the time spend a lot of time talking about how bodies were lying in the streets, without proper burial, and being eaten by animals. If human meat were really a common source of protein for these people, it is very unlikely that the Aztecs would have starved to death inside their city.
No, cannibalism wasn’t about protein or starvation. It was, in fact, about religion. Human sacrifice was believed to appease the gods,and was tied to certain times of year (NOT times of scarcity, as would be expected if cannibalism were a dietary supplement). Sacrifice of prisoners of war was common, the Aztecs were the ‘chosen people’, and it was their job to prevent the end of the world by offering human sacrifices to the sun god. Not only that, the fate of someone in the afterlife didn’t depend on how you lived, it depended on how you DIED. To die in war was the best possible thing, but to be a religious sacrifice ran a close second, with definite admission to paradise.
And why the cannibalism? The body of a sacrifical victim was believed to be sacred, and “eating their flesh was the act of eating the god itself”, and believed to put you in contact with spiritual beings, much like the other Aztec practice of ingesting psilocybin. Often, sacrifical victims were dressed to resemble specific gods, and were almost always supposed to be “without blemish” to be pleasing to the gods.
And the takeaway message from this paper: if you’re ravenous, human meat contains rougly 16% protein, very close to that of lean beef. But if you only eat the arms and legs (as was traditional in Aztec practice), you’re only getting 1.81kg of protein total. It’s not worth it. Stick to the corn and beans.
B. R. O. de Montellano (1978). Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity? Science, 200 (4342), 611-617 DOI: 10.1126/science.200.4342.611

12 Responses

  1. 2012 not 1012?

  2. I might could be mistaken, but I believe the calendar to which you refer, with the 2012 prediction, is in fact Mayan and not Aztec.

  3. Many people also know of their calendar, which predicts that the world will end in 1012.

    If you meant 2012, it’s the Mesoamerican long count calendar which is widely (but incorrectly) believed to ‘predict the end of the world in 2012’. The Mesoamerican long count calendar probably originated with the Olmecs, and was adopted by the Maya. There is no archaeological evidence any Mesoamerican people believed ‘the world would end in 2012’. On the contrary, there are several Mayan inscriptions which make predictions about dates beyond 2012. To the Mesoamericans, December 20, 2012 was the end of the 13th b’ak’tun, followed by the start of the fourteenth b’ak’tun – a time for celebration, probably, since they frequently scheduled celebrations at the ends of cycles of their calendar. Similar to American and European perceptions of the end of the 20th century, followed by the start of the 21st century. But not the end of the world.

    There are whole families of new-age myths about would will happen at the end of the 13th b’ak’tun – some predict world peace, some predict the end of technology, and, of course, the most popularly known ones predict the end of the world. These myths rely on substantial misinterpretation of Mesoamerican mythology, along with misinterpretation of several Asian mythologies.

  4. The Nahuat language gives us all those plant and animal names that have that nice final ‘t’ or ‘tl’ or variant: ocelot, avocado, guajalote. Smoked armadillo isn’t bad.

  5. You didn’t mention the smallpox outbreak in Tenochtitlan immediately prior to Corts’s 8-month siege, which literally decimated and may have even halved the population of the city.
    I wonder at the utility of the “lake farm” if the produce derived from it was inadequate to sustain the Mexcs under the siege. It seems this type of farming supported them, but what portion of their nutritional needs it actually met is another issue.
    The importance of this question is heightened by this consideration: if they had a thriving “lake farm” to begin with, and then the city population is significantly reduced by smallpox, yet the “lake farm” is still insufficient to prevent starvation under a siege, can it really be considered significant?
    Or was starvation not actually a significant factor in the conquest of the city?

  6. argh, first, yes, it’s 2012, that would be a typo. And yeah, ti’s the Maya. I shouldn’t blog late at night. I’ll take it out. llewelly, thanks for the info.
    Ian: you’re right, the lake farms did not supply enough to feed the city, in fact most of the food they lived on was supplied by tribute. I did not actually know of the smallpox outbreak prior to the siege, the article didn’t mention it, and I’m afraid my background reading wasn’t all that extensive. I am not sure how much of a factor starvation was in the taking of the city. Do you know?

  7. I don’t know how much starvation factored in the *taking* of the city but it was certainly a major factor in the siege. And of course the fact that the smallpox and the starvation meant that there were dead bodies all over the place probably didn’t help with anything.

  8. Damn it, Scicurious! I was really hoping this was going to be something sexual.

  9. Oh, Isis, I know, aren’t I so sneaky?! I suppose it COULD be sexual, but I wouldn’t want to study a culture with sexual cannibalism…

  10. Warrior cultures cannibalizing their victims, nothing new there. Gunboys in the Congo are doing it right now. Gives them strength or some such. They eat the livers.

  11. Note also that the 60s and 70s was a period in the history of archaeology when natural determinism was at its apex. At that time, it was simply hip to try to explain everything through reference to people’s dietary needs. Then came a period when archaeologists interpreted everything as caused by symbolism and ritual. Now we’re hovering between the extremes.

  12. Interesting post!

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