The Cannibalism Paradigm: Assessing Contact Period Ethnohistorical Discourse.

©2004 James Q. Jacobs

In my experience it is commonplace in academic discourse, in educational media, and in popular media to assert that human sacrifice and cannibalism were practiced on a large scale in prehispanic America. At the same time, I have not been able to find a satisfactory eyewitness report of either activity in the numerous ethnohistorical writings from the Contact era. I employ the term "cannibalism paradigm" to describe this gap between the admissible evidence and the hearsay that informs modern beliefs about practices of consuming human flesh.

Paradigms are the biases, preconceptions and assumptions, both conscious and unconscious, that inform thought and views of reality. Kuhn (1996) described the paradigm concept and analyzed the role of paradigms in scientific thought. More recently, Clark (1993) discussed paradigms in archaeology. Regarding evidence of cannibalism in archaeological contexts, assumptions underlie any statement that cannibalism was practiced. Even with the best possible bioarchaeological evidence of a signature of cannibalism (see Turner and Turner 1999:53), there is only a well-supported inference that flesh was eaten. Typically, there is no certain way to demonstrate that human flesh actually was eaten. In the case of anthropology, an assumption relevant to cannibalism and human sacrifice is the acceptance of ethnohistorical reports as true. In other instances, cannibalism claims not supported by physical evidence have found popular acceptance. Almost all instances of assertions that cannibalism has existed, from the most scientific approaches to fanciful popular literature, fall within the "cannibalism paradigm" concept.

Given the degree of reliance on reports of explorers, conquerors, and missionaries in purported cases of cannibalism and sacrifice, it is important to examine and analyze the context of the sources, their particular historical and cultural settings, the paradigms, prejudices, and biases that inform their statements, the political, social, and religious context of their experience, and the motivations underlying their activities and viewpoints. It is also important to examine the history of the documentation containing the hearsay evidence so critical to contemporary paradigms. Such a critical analysis is essential before relying on ethnohistorical data when inferring anthropophagic (human-eating) practices in archaeological contexts.

In this paper, I focus on the ethnohistorical documents of the Contact period in Mesoamerica. I use a variety of documents to analyze the sources of the modern cannibalism paradigm. My purpose is to present the foundations of the current paradigm with respect to Mesoamerica. I will present sufficient samples of discourse and other evidence for the reader to understand the social and political milieu of the Contact period. I intend to provide sufficient documentation to allow informed discussion and debate of the cannibalism issue.

Ethnography is based on observation of customs, and in all such activity, bias is a concern. Isaac (2002:220) succinctly writes, "Biases and other limitations inherent in any corpus of ethnohistorical data provide easy ammunition for skeptics." Biases also provide useful tools for assessing sources, and should be an important part of analyses of ethnohistorical sources. The actual discourse used to support the views that cannibalism and human sacrifice was practiced is revelatory of the biases of the writers. I will use their discourse to illustrate their biases.

Cannibalism is also part of an Others paradigm. I use the term "Others paradigm" to refer to the cultural practice of defining an out-group. (Herein I italicize others and othering when referring to this practice). In contemporary culture, persons eating flesh are prosecuted as criminals, and are certainly perceived as an out-group. Because of current cultural perceptions of cannibalism, it can be controversial to make cannibalism claims about past groups, particularly so when modern populations consider themselves culturally affiliated with those groups. Current academic authors have been criticized for writing on cannibalism. Beth Conklin (2001) writes, "Cannibalism is a difficult topic for an anthropologist to write about, for it pushes the limits of cultural relativism."

In a critical modern work, Arens (1979) writes of the ubiquity of people eaters,

"Anthropologists have made no serious attempt to disabuse the public of the widespread notion of the ubiquity of anthropophagists. … in the deft hands and fertile imaginations of anthropologists, former or contemporary anthropophagists have multiplied with the advance of civilization and fieldwork in formerly unstudied culture areas. …The existence of man-eating peoples just beyond the pale of civilization is a common ethnographic suggestion."

Rumsey (1999:105) states,

"It is commonplace in anthropology that cannibalism is often imputed to other people beyond one's cultural horizon…. This form of 'othering' has been most fully explored in its Western manifestations, as an aspect of legitimating ideology of colonialism, missionization, and other aspects of cultural imperialism."

(Arens) "was no doubt right about the important part that imputations of cannibalism have played in Western constructions of the savage 'other' beyond the frontiers of civilization."

Although Arens polemical view (rarity of cannibalism) has been criticized, Arens (1998:40) more recently continues to maintain that:

"the ever-present cannibals on the horizon of the Western world are the result of intellectual conjuring -- including the anthropological variety."

"I continue to aver not only that the Caribs, Aztecs, Pacific Islanders, and various African, Native American and new Guinea 'tribes' have been exoticised, but also -- and equally importantly -- that Western culture has congratulated itself for putting a stop to this cultural excess through colonial 'pacification' and introducing Christianity to once-benighted natives." (Arens 1998:41)

Discourses are situated in the particular social and political framework of their time, as is the modern debate of this issue. Various views on the topic are currently debated. The degree to which cannibalism was practiced is debated, not the existence of the practice. The role of anthropology in framing views about cannibalism and sacrifice is also an important issue in this debate, as seen in the quotes above. And, I would add, investigation of the issue is a responsibility of the profession when modern viewpoints and popular beliefs are seen as insupportable given the evidence available. I find myself in this situation, confronting a gap between the available evidence and current views, and herein I present the evidence that causes me to question the current cannibalism paradigm.

The circumstances of the cultural contact in which reports of cannibalism are found merit careful attention and analysis. As an example, in one such instance, Captain Cook reported, "a piece of the flesh had been broiled and eaten by one of the Natives in the presence of most of the officers" (Hulme 1998:21). However, the journal of the officer, Lieutenant Clerke, reveals the agency for the act. Clerke cut a piece of a corpse, broiled it, and gave it to the native (Hulme 1998:21-22). Cook himself, "being desirous of being an eye witness," ordered human meat broiled and given to a Native to eat (Hulme 1998:21-22). Careful analysis by Hulme revealed that Cook's report is not that of an independent observer reporting an authentic practice of another culture. In this case, an observer might well conclude that Cook and Clerke were involved in cannibalism. This example clearly illustrates the need to examine reports carefully, particularly so when they are cited as supportive of cannibalism occurring in another culture.

The Ethnohistorical Documents from Mesoamerica

Isaac (2002:204) states that reports of cannibalism in Central Mexico relied almost entirely on "a few sixteenth-century ethnographic resources… derived mainly from research in urban centers." Most of the surviving ethnohistorical sources alleging sacrifice and cannibalism (Durán in 1581, Sahagún in 1577, and Relaciones Geográficas 1577-1586) are post-demographic-reduction and post-religious-conversion products. In the following discussions of ethnohistorical sources, I will follow the historical chronology of events even though some of the reportage was written out of historical order. In this historical context, I will analyze the discourses with the object of revealing the paradigms and beliefs of the writers and the socio-cultural context of their claims. The object of the analysis is to support evaluating the veracity of the original sources and their utility and reliability in support of cannibalism claims.

The very earliest report of the Americas conveys information about the prevailing Spanish paradigms during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Columbus (1493), in his letter to the Spanish monarchy, reported in part:

"Concerning the Islands Recently Discovered in the Indian Sea … Because my undertakings have attained success, I know that it will be pleasing to you: these I have determined to relate, so that you may be made acquainted with everything done and discovered in this our voyage. On the thirty-third day after I departed from Cadiz, I came to the Indian sea, where I found many islands inhabited by men without number, of all which I took possession for our most fortunate king, with proclaiming heralds and flying standards, no one objecting…."

This section of discourse reveals the Spanish view that they had the right to claim the Indies as their possession, irrespective of the number of inhabitants, a presumed right applied to places not Christianized. The Other distinction, that non-Christians are Others, and as such have distinct rights or lack thereof, was fundamental to this practice.

Columbus continued,

"Now in the meantime I had learned from certain Indians, whom I had seized there, that this country was indeed an island.…" On this island, indeed, and on all the others which I have seen, and of which I have knowledge, the inhabitants of both sexes go always naked.…" "All these people lack, as I said above, every kind of iron; they are also without weapons, … they are timid and full of fear … they are of simple manners and trustworthy, and very liberal with everything they have, refusing no one who asks for anything they may possess, and even themselves inviting us to ask for things. They show greater love for all others than for themselves; they give valuable things for trifles … and I gave to them many beautiful and pleasing things that I had brought with me, no value being taken in exchange, in order that I might the more easily make them friendly to me, that they might be made worshipers of Christ, and that they might be full of love towards our king, queen, and prince, and the whole Spanish nation; also that they might be zealous to search out and collect, and deliver to us those things of which they had plenty, and which we greatly needed."

In this section, Columbus reveals Othering in his taking possession of people. He reveals that the people were powerless to oppose the Spaniards. He also reveals a motivation of religious indoctrination of non-Christians. Columbus continues,

"These people practice no kind of idolatry; on the contrary they firmly believe that all strength and power, and in fact all good things are in heaven, and that I had come down from thence with these ships and sailors; and in this belief I was received there after they had put aside fear. Nor are they slow or unskilled, but of excellent and acute understanding; and the men who have navigated that sea give an account of everything in an admirable manner; but they never saw people clothed, nor these kind of ships. As soon as I reached that sea, I seized by force several Indians on the first island, in order that they might learn from us, and in like manner tell us about those things in these lands of which they themselves had knowledge; and the plan succeeded, for in a short time we understood them and they us, sometimes by gestures and signs, sometimes by words; and it was a great advantage to us. They are coming with me now, yet always believing that I descended from heaven, although they have been living with us for a long time, and are living with us today. And these men were the first who announced it wherever we landed, continually proclaiming to the others in a loud voice, "Come, come, and you will see the celestial people."

"Truly great and wonderful is this, and not corresponding to our merits, but to the holy Christian religion, and to the piety and religion of our sovereigns, because what the human understanding could not attain, that the divine will has granted to human efforts. For God is wont to listen to his servants who love his precepts, even in impossibilities, as has happened to us on the present occasion, who have attained that which hitherto mortal men have never reached. For if anyone has written or said anything about these islands, it was all with obscurities and conjectures; no one claims that he had seen them; from which they seemed like fables. Therefore let the king and queen, the princes and their most fortunate kingdoms, and all other countries of Christendom give thanks to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who has bestowed upon us so great a victory and gift. Let religious processions be solemnized; let sacred festivals be given; let the churches be covered with festive garlands. Let Christ rejoice on earth, as he rejoices in heaven, when he foresees coming to salvation so many souls of people hitherto lost. Let us be glad also, as well on account of the exaltation of our faith, as on account of the increase of our temporal affairs, of which not only Spain, but universal Christendom will be partaker. These things that have been done are thus briefly related. Farewell."

This discourse reveals the religious worldview of fifteenth century Spain. The paradigm of the time included idolatry, heaven, religion, sovereign piety, God, Christ in heaven, divine will, servitude to God, salvation, souls, faith, and universal Christendom. These views justified conquest of the Others.

The word "cannibal" derives from Columbus' journeys, from reference to the Carib Indians as Caniba. Diego Alvarez Chanca reported that during Columbus' second voyage, on Nov. 4, 1493, Columbus found some bones of the arms or legs of humans in a house. In fact, Chanca was not part of the landing party, and the bones were stolen, perhaps from a funerary structure. Hulme (1998:18-19), regarding this incident, writes:

"The cannibal scene reported to Chanca has an interesting history, illustrative of the augmentative process that often marks the passage of ethnographic description from one context to another. Chanca's cannibal scene passed into the European imagination via the graphic description offered by the influential humanist scholar Peter Martyr, who never got nearer the Caribbean than Andalucía. To the handful of bones in one hut reported by Chanca, Peter Martyr pluralized the location, gave the houses kitchens, added pieces of human flesh broached on the spit ready for roasting and, for good measure, threw in the head of a young boy hanging from the beam and still soaking in blood…"

"A handful of bones -- which might have had nothing to do with cannibalism -- now has been transformed into 'veritable human butcher-shops', a kind of mass-production line for cannibal delicacies. …Chanca's does not provide -- as often stated -- evidence of cannibalism in the Caribbean islands. However, the history of its transmission, elaboration, and embroidery provides evidence of a fascination which requires more analysis than it is usually given."

The idea of cannibals in the Caribbean arose from the weakest evidence and, essentially, from the European mind. The fascination with the cannibal antedated the European discovery of the 'New World' and played a role in perceptions of Otherness of peoples encountered. Anthropophagophobia (verb. nov., fear of being cannibalized) is commonly seen in the accounts of explorers. This idea precedes discovery of and contact with the complex state societies of mainland America.

Most interest in conquest narratives is given to the Bernal Diaz del Castillo account, True History of the Conquest of New Spain. Diaz's kinsman, Diego Velasquez, had conquered Cuba before Diaz set sail to America with Pedro de Arias in 1514. Diaz participated in two explorations of the Yucatan Peninsula and, in 1519, sailed with Hernando Cortes to Mexico. Diaz began writing after 1550, but only completed his conquest account in 1568, when angered by inaccuracies he perceived in the account written by Lopez de Gamora. Several different versions of Diaz's 'true history' have emerged; one copy belongs to the Guatemalan government, the other to a Diaz descendant. A copy was sent to Spain to King Philip II in 1579 (Diaz 1956:xix). Although the Díaz version of the conquest appeared in Spain in 1576, Díaz continued to revise his book until his death in 1584. Although Diaz wrote retrospectively, there apparently is no obfuscation of his prejudice towards Indians, or of the degree to which acquisition of gold and riches motivated the Spanish conquest.

I selected the following parts of Diaz's discourse (Diaz 1956) to illustrate the paradigms of the conquerors, their motivations, and their views of the natives. On arriving in Cuba:

"On landing we went at once to pay our respects to the Governor, who was pleased at our coming, and promised to give us Indians as soon as there were any to spare."

This passage evidences enslavement of the Caribbean population and the scarcity of slaves. About leaving Cuba in 1517, Diaz writes:

"In order that our voyage should proceed on right principles we wished to take with us a priest…. We also chose for the office of overseer (in His Majesty's name) a soldier ... so that if God willed that we should come on rich lands, or people who possessed gold or silver or pearls or any other kind of treasure, there should be a responsible person to guard the Royal Fifth."

The motivation and rationale of the voyage is revealed. Riches and treasure are sought, finding rich lands is associated with God's will (a justification for seizure) and the entire enterprise of taking the riches obviously involves the institutions of church and state. Diaz reveals the belief that the Spaniards could simply take possession of any riches encountered (conditioned on giving the monarchy twenty percent) and that the enterprise had religious sanction. Implicit in this view is the precept of Others. Undertaking such actions against Christian nations was not sanctioned.

Regarding the discovery of Yucatan, Diaz continues:

"When we had seen the gold and houses of masonry, we felt well content at having discovered such a country."

Regarding the second expedition from Cuba to Yucatan:

"As the report had spread that the lands were very rich, the soldiers and settlers who possessed no Indians in Cuba were greedily eager to go to the new land..."

On returning to Cuba:

"When the governor saw the gold we had brought ... amounted in all to twenty thousand dollars, he was well contented. Then the officers of the King took the Royal Fifth...." "When Governor Diego Velasquez understood how rich were these newly discovered lands, he ordered another fleet, much larger than the former one be sent off..."

These passages clearly relate the role of searching for riches. One form of wealth is certainly the possession of slaves, and this wealth is based on the ability to find slaves. Fundamental to enslavement is the concept of Other.

Of the expedition to Mexico:

"As soon as Hernando Cortes had been appointed General he began to search for all sorts of arms, guns, powder, and crossbows, and every kind of warlike stores which he could get together..."

"Then he ordered two standards and banners to be made, worked in gold with the royal arms and the cross on each side with a legend which said, 'Comrades, let us follow the sign of the Holy Cross with true faith, and through it we shall conquer.' …"

"Juan Sedeno passed for the richest soldier in the fleet, for he came in his own ship with the mare, and a negro and a store of cassava bread and salt pork, and at that time horses and negroes were worth their weight in gold…."

In this discourse, the intent to find riches is coupled with creating a military unit. The role of religion in rationalizing conquest is revealed. The symbolic interweaving of religion and monarchy are seen in the standards and banners, symbolic supports for the enterprise. Diaz cites horses and Negroes as two classes of objects in the same domain, that of wealth. An implicit factor in othering is also revealed, skin color and the perception of race. This discourse reveals that Negroes were Others and that Spanish enslavement was not limited to Native Americans.

Regarding the first battle fought under Cortes in the New World, against the people of Tabasco, Diaz writes:

"... we doctored the horses by searing their wounds with the fat from the body of a dead Indian which we cut up to get out the fat, and we went to look at the dead lying on the plain and there were more than eight hundred of them, the greater number killed by thrusts, the others by cannon, muskets and crossbows, and many were stretched on the ground half dead…. The battle lasted over an hour ... we buried the two soldiers that had been killed ... we seared the wounds of the others and of the horses with the fat of the Indian, and after posting sentinels and guards, we had supper and rested."

"... These were the first vassals to render submission to His Majesty in New Spain."

The level of violence justified to achieve the goals of conquest is revealed. In addition, the disregard for the dead of the Others is clear in the abuse of the corpse to treat the horses.

Regarding first contact with the Mexica-Aztecas:

"It happened that one of the soldiers had a helmet half gilt but somewhat rusty ... and (he) said that he wished to see it as it was like one that they possessed which had been left to them by their ancestors of the race from which they had sprung ... that their prince Montezuma would like to see this helmet. So it was given to him, and Cortes said to them that as he wished to know whether the gold of this country was the same as that we find in our rivers, they could return the helmet filled with grains of gold…."

"... the chief brought back the helmet full of fine grains of gold, just as they are got out of the mines, and this was worth three thousand dollars. This gold in the helmet was worth more to us than if it had contained twenty thousand dollars, because it showed that there were good mines there."

Again, Diaz reveals that gold was a priority for the conquerors. In addition, the leader of the Others is termed a prince, rather than a king.

The following Diaz discourses bear more directly on the issue of cannibalism and human sacrifice. Regarding the pyramid complex at Tenochtitlan, Diaz writes:

"Before reaching the great Cue there is a great enclosure of courts, it seems to me larger than the plaza in Salamanca, with two great walls of masonry surrounding it, and the court itself all paved with very smooth great white flagstones. And where there were not these stones it was cemented and burnished and all very clean, so that one could not find any dust or straw in the whole place."

"When we arrived near the great Cue and before we had ascended a single step of it, the Great Montezuma sent down from above, where he was making his sacrifices, six priests and two chieftans to accompany our Captain…. When we got to the top of the great Cue, on a small plaza which has been made on the top where there was a space like a platform with some large stones placed on it, on which they put the poor Indians for sacrifice, there was a bulky image like a dragon and other evil figures and much blood shed every day." … (in) "a sort of hall, where there were two altars … There were some braziers with incense they call copal, and in them they were burning the hearts of the three Indians whom they had sacrificed that day… All the walls of the oratory were so splashed and encrusted with blood that they were black, the floor was the same and the whole place stank vilely…"

"A little way apart from the great Cue there was another small tower which was also on an idol house, or a true hell, for it had at the opening of one gate a most horrible mouth such as they depict, saying that such there are in hell. The mouth was open with great fangs to devour souls, and here too were some groups of devils and bodies of serpents close to the door, and a little way off was a place of sacrifice all blood-stained and black with smoke, and there were great ollas and cánaros and tinajas of water inside, for it was here that they cooked the flesh of the unfortunate Indians who were sacrificed, which were eaten by the priests."

Spanish perceptions illustrated here are sacrifice, priests, dragon, altars, evil figures, idols, hell, and devils. Diaz reports "burning hearts" without reporting the actual sacrifice. He also reports daily sacrifices and, although he spent considerable time in the city of Tenochtitlan before the Aztec overthrow, he never reports witnessing the "every day" sacrifices. Diaz also alleges cannibalism by the priests, again without witnessing the alleged act. It is disconcerting, in terms of the credibility of his statements and given his first-hand contact and presence at the time and in the place where the alleged daily sacrifice and cannibalism took place, that Diaz does not report actually witnessing the alleged events.

To properly assess the reported events, funerary practices need to be accounted for. At the same time, treatment of criminal convicts or enemy combatants, both aspects of advanced state societies, cannot be ignored in such an analysis. Present day societies have crematory funerary practices and culturally sanctioned forms of execution of criminals and enemies, illustrating the importance of keeping assessment of the cannibalism separate from assessment of other possible explanations for the activity claimed to have occurred. While I think it is important to point out these related concerns, and their relevance to this analysis, they are not the focus of this paper.

Returning to treasure, in the palace in which Montezuma quartered his Spanish guests, the Spaniards uncovered a treasure trove, which they later attempted to steal. Diaz writes:

"There was a rumor and we had heard the story that Montezuma kept a treasure of his father Axayaca in that building, it was suspected that it might be in this chamber which had been closed up and cemented only a few days before. ...and the door was secretly opened. When it was opened Cortes and some of his Captains went in first, and they saw such a number of jewels and slabs of gold and chalchihuites and other riches, that they were quite carried away and did not know what to say about such wealth...I took it for certain that their could not be another such store of wealth in the whole world."

Obviously, Diaz did see the gold and other riches. The view of the Otherness of the Aztec ruler is revealed by the behavior of Montezuma's guests. They felt they could take possession of his treasury. Compare this to how they would have acted had they been guests of the king of Spain.

Ortiz de Montellano (1978) addresses concerns about the motivations of the conquerors and the accuracy of their assertions as follows:

"In evaluating all early statements, from both Cortes and Diaz del Castillo about what the natives told them, we should keep in mind that none of the Spaniards knew Nahuatl. All conversations had to be translated by Dona Marina, their single native interpreter, from Nahuatl into Maya. They were then translated by Geronimo de Aguilar into Spanish… Cortes' statement was based purely on hearsay accounts from enemies of the Aztecs and filtered through two translations. It must be considered an attempt to manufacture a cause for war to justify to himself and to his king the conquest of the Aztecs, who had up until then made no hostile moves. In order for Cortes to justify massacres such as those in Cholula or Tenochtitlan (in each of which the conquerors killed several thousand defenseless people), it was necessary to dehumanize the Aztecs and allege great cruelties... This psychological mechanism of dehumanizing enemies in order to justify any actions against them is of course not unique to Cortes, yet because of it we should not accept his information uncritically."

"The accounts of Diaz del Castillo suffer from the same problems: (i) the need to justify the aggressive acts of the conquerors and (ii) ignorance of the natives' language. An additional disadvantage is that he wrote his account 40 years after the conquest, when he was in his seventies… The Aztecs are accused of liking human flesh better than any other, of going to war solely for the purpose of obtaining human meat, and of being sodomites and drunks.... Diaz del Castillo may have copied this detail from the Relation of the Anonymous Conqueror, which appeared while he was writing his book."

The atrocities of Spanish activities in the conquest of the Indies came to be debated in Spain, together with issues of rights of the inhabitants. An opponent to slavery, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote his Brevissima relación de la destruycion de las Indias (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies), as a letter to the King of Spain, to complain of the atrocities and to support abolition of enslaving the populace. Las Casas wrote his account directly to the king of Spain with the intent of influencing policy.

Las Casas sailed to the "New World" in 1502. In 1514 he renounced his land and slaves in Cuba and began campaigning for Indian rights. In Spain in 1515, Cardinal Cisneros entitled him "Universal Protector of the Indians," a special prosecutor designation. He took vows in the Dominican Order in 1523 and conducted missionary work in Nicaragua and Guatemala. He returned to Spain in 1547 to defend Indian rights and seek abolition of slavery before the Spanish Court.

Las Casas reports the Spanish extermination of native populations. The following discourse from Las Casas' (1542) Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies presents the views of a conqueror turned protector of the indigenous population. Las Casas' writings are important because of their influential role in latter censorship. Publication of his writing outside Spain influenced the Spanish crown and motivated greater restrictions controlling publication of information about the conquest and the indigenous peoples of the New World. I will discuss the role of censorship in detail below.

Las Casas' writing provides a perspective on the activities and mind-set of the conquerors not typically found in ethnohistorical materials, a reminder that diverse perspectives on the conquest prevailed. Las Casas writes:

"…forty-nine years have passed since the first settlers penetrated the land, the first so claimed being the large and most happy isle called Hispaniola, … This large island was perhaps the most densely populated place in the world … all the land so far discovered is a beehive of people; it is as though God had crowded into these lands the great majority of mankind."

"And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve. They are by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome. These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world … they not only possess little but have no desire to possess worldly goods. For this reason they are not arrogant, embittered, or greedy.… They are very clean in their persons, with alert, intelligent minds, docile and open to doctrine, very apt to receive our holy Catholic faith, to be endowed with virtuous customs, and to behave in a godly fashion."

While lobbying for the indigenous population, Las Casas nonetheless reveals the Otherness concept, when stating that the non-Christian natives serve the Spanish Christians. He also portrays them in relation to their receptivity to religious indoctrination. His guileless, peaceable people are not recognizable as the cannibals depicted by other authors. Las Casas continues:

"…into this land of meek outcasts there came some Spaniards who immediately behaved like ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions that had been starved for many days. And Spaniards have behaved in no other way during the past forty years, down to the present time, for they are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples, doing all this with the strangest and most varied new methods of cruelty, never seen or heard of before, and to such a degree that this Island of Hispaniola once so populous (having a population that I estimated to be more than three million), has now a population of barely two hundred persons."

"The island of Cuba is… now almost completely depopulated. San Juan [Puerto Rico] and Jamaica are two of the largest, most productive and attractive islands; both are now deserted and devastated. On the northern side of Cuba and Hispaniola the neighboring Lucayos comprising more than sixty islands … have the healthiest lands in the world, where lived more than five hundred thousand souls; they are now deserted, inhabited by not a single living creature. All the people were slain or died after being taken into captivity and brought to the Island of Hispaniola to be sold as slaves. When the Spaniards saw that some of these had escaped, they sent a ship to find them, and it voyaged for three years among the islands searching for those who had escaped being slaughtered…"

"More than thirty other islands in the vicinity of San Juan are for the most part and for the same reason depopulated…"

"As for the vast mainland, which is ten times larger than all Spain, … we are sure that our Spaniards, with their cruel and abominable acts, have devastated the land and exterminated the rational people who fully inhabited it. We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million."

"Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time…"

"… the Indians began to seek ways to throw the Christians out of their lands.… And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, 'Boil there, you offspring of the devil!' Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby. They made some low wide gallows on which they hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim's neck, saying, 'Go now, carry the message,' meaning, Take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains. … survivors were distributed among the Christians to be slaves."

Las Casas' usage of the term Christians is noteworthy. In Las Casas it is 'Christians,' not 'conquerors,' who carry out the massacres, burn the natives, and sacrifice millions of 'souls.'

Fray Toribio Motolinía's discourses about human sacrifice and cannibalism are numerous.

Motolinía was one of the group of eleven friars to accompany Fray Martin de Valencia to New Spain in 1523, to join five friars of the Franciscan order already there (Foster 1950:1). Motolinía became guardian of the Franciscan monastery in Mexico by 1525. A document records his presence at the meeting called by Cortes to consider the use of the royal branding-iron for slaves (Foster 1950:2).

Motolinia's writing served as source material for Alonso de Zurita between 1554 and 1564 and for Mendieta (Foster 1950:17-18). In 1538 or 1539, Las Casas had access to Motolinia's writings, and made use of them in his Apologética Historia de las Indias (Foster 1950:17). Motolinia's History was completed in 1541, and probably sent to Spain at that time (Foster 1950:18). According to Cervantes de Salazar, Gómara, in writing his Conquista de Mejico", closely followed Motolinia material we no longer have, as he did in writing Crónica de la Nueva España (Foster 1950:18).

Motolinía's History begins as follows (Foster 1950:37):

"CHAPTER I. Of how and when the first friars who made that journey set out; and of the persecutions and plagues which occurred in New Spain.

"In the year of our Lord 1523, on the day of the conversion of Saint Paul, which is the 25th of January, Father Fray Martin de Valencia, of blessed memory, with eleven friars as his companions set out from Spain to come to this land of Anáhuac.… They came with great indulgences and pardons from our very Holy Father, and at the special command of His Majesty our Lord the Emperor, to convert the Indians, natives of this land of Anáhuac, now called New Spain."

Motolinía's motivations are clearly revealed in this discourse. Concepts in the religious domain include conversion, blessed, indulgences, pardons, and Holy Father. Motolinia also provides an indication of the relation of the crown and religion, indicating an imperial command to convert the natives.

Although Motolinía arrives in New Spain almost immediately after the overthrow of Tenochtitlan, his report, produced 20 years later, does not provide first-hand accounts of the reputed events. Nor does he inform the reader of who provided the information he reports. Regarding the feast of Panquetzaliztli, Motolinía (1951:114-116) reports,

"On that day … they offered numerous sacrifices of blood taken both from the ears and the tongue…. In addition to these and other sacrifices and ceremonies, they offered up many human beings … they stretched the unfortunate victims on their backs when sacrificing them. Their chest was very taunt, because both feet and hands were bound…. The executioner approached promptly with a flint-stone … they cut open with great force the unfortunate victim and promptly tore out his heart.… Occasionally, the aged ministers of the temple consumed the hearts or buried them. Thereupon they took the victim's body and sent it rolling down the steps. In case the victim was a war captive, his captor with friends and relatives took it away when it reached the bottom and, preparing that human flesh with other food, they held a feast on another day and consumed it."

"… The number of victims was in accordance with the size of the town; in some twenty were sacrificed, in others thirty, in others forty, at times even as many as fifty or sixty, while in Mexico they sacrificed a hundred or even more."

"… From a number of those sacrificed they pealed off the skin, in some localities from two or three, in others from four or five, in others from ten, and in Mexico from as many as twelve or fifteen … they preserved in Mexico for this day that war captive who was a chief or principal person. This one they flayed, in order that his skin might be put on by the great lord of Mexico, Moteuczuma. Garbed in this skin he danced with great dignity, believing he was performing a great service to the demon…. In each locality, at a feast held on another day they sacrificed a woman and skinned her. Someone put this skin on and danced in it with all the others of the town…."

In Chapter Seven, "Human Sacrifice, cont…" Motolinía (1951:117-118) writes:

"0n another feast-day in some localities and towns, like Tlacopan, Coyoacan and Atzcapotzalco, the Indians prepared a large round pole measuring ten fathoms in length. Then they made an idol of seeds, wrapped up in and tied with papers, and fastened this idol to the top of the pole. On the eve of the feast-day they set up this tree, of which I speak, with the idol and danced around it the rest of the day. On the morning of the feast-day they took some Indian slaves and others whom they had captured in war, brought them with feet and hands shackled, and cast them into the great fire they had prepared for this cruel ceremony. But they did not let them bum to death. This was not because they had pity on the victims but because they had a more terrible torment for them; they were presently sacrificed by being slain and having their hearts torn out…."

"Another day, observed generally in all localities, was dedicated to the god of fire, or to fire itself, which was regarded and venerated as a god, and this not as one of the minor gods. On this day they took one of the war captives, clothed him in the dress and robes of the fire god, danced in honor of that god, and then sacrificed the captive and the other war captives they had."

In stating that this event occurs generally in all localities, Motolinía reveals that his report is anything but an eyewitness account. He is speaking in generalities that cannot be documented or proved. While the statements are obviously hearsay, this does not necessarily infer that they are false. Motolinía continues,

"Far more frightful, however, than what obtained generally is the sacrifice they offered here in Cuautitlan, where I am writing this. Here the demon seems to have shown himself more cruel than in other localities. On the eve of the feast in Cuautitlan they erected six large trees, like masts of a ship, with ladders. On this savage eve and also on the more savage feast-day they beheaded two female slaves on the uppermost steps before the altar of the gods. Up there they also skinned the entire body and face and took the thigh bones. On the feast-day, in the morning, two Indian chiefs put on the skins and also the faces as masks, took in their hands the thigh bones, one in each hand, and descended the steps very slowly, bellowing loudly like savage beasts…."

Motolinía reveals his belief that the actions of the natives were controlled by "the demon" and are savage. This is very characteristic of Otherness conceptualization, in which first a concept of evil is defined, in this case a demon, then the defined evil is associated with the Other. Accusations of beheading, skinning, and removal of bones are also made against the so-called evil savages. In the following passage Motolinía adds crucifixion and other mutilations to the list of violent abuses, including tearing out hearts, slashing throats, and cannibalism by lords and chiefs. In this account, the victims are sacrificed only after they are crucified, shot with arrows by thousands of people, and dropped to the ground from a great height breaking every bone in their bodies, and then, after their hearts are torn out, there throats are cut. This account (Motolinía 1951: 118) seems very incredulous.

"There was enacted on this same day another, even greater and never heard-of, cruelty. To the top of those six poles which they had erected on the eve of the feast they bound and crucified six male war captives. Below were more than two thousand boys and men with bows and arrows. After the ones who had gone up to fasten the captives had come down, the boys and men discharged the arrows, like rain, at the six crucified captives. Presently they went up, unfastened the half-dead victims, and let them fall from that height. Such was the crash with which they hit the ground that every bone in their bodies was broken or bruised. Thereupon the Indians subjected them to a third death, sacrificing them and tearing out their hearts. Finally they dragged them away, slashed their throat, cut off their head, and gave the heads to the minister of the idols, while the bodies they carried, like mutton, to the lords and chiefs for food…"

The following paragraph reveals a belief that the natives danced "to the demon," insinuating that they worshipped the devil. In this context, it is noteworthy that the figure of the Devil in the European Christian sense was newly introduced to the Nahuas (Klaus 1999:95), inferring that Motolinía's European paradigm is what is actually revealed by Motolinia's discourse.

Motolinía (1951:120) reports that war was waged in distant lands for the express purpose of obtaining sacrificial victims.

"Tititl. On this day and on another, both times at night, all the Indians danced to the demon and sacrificed to it many war captives from very distant towns. As the Indians of Mexico say, some provinces around them are hostile and belligerent, like Tlaxcallan and Huexotzinco. They use these provinces to exercise themselves in war and to have places near-by whence they can obtain captives for the sacrifices, rather than for the purpose of fighting and annihilation. The other provinces say the same of Mexicans, from whom they obtain captives for their sacrifice, just as the Mexicans do from them. There are some other distant provinces where once a year or so they carry on war, organized squadrons of warriors setting out for this purpose. One of these was the province and kingdom of Michuachapanco which the Spaniards now call Painuco. These captives they sacrifice on that day, not the captives of near-by provinces, nor slaves."

Motolinía (1951:106) also reports that, on the last day of the last month of the year,

"…a general feast was held in the entire land. These feasts were dedicated to one of the chief demons, to whom they did honor with several human sacrifices and with many other ceremonies."

He also discusses Spanish activity toward native culture. With regard to the destruction of native imagery, Motolinía writes,

"…such activity (destroying idols) was very necessary, however, both to prevent offenses against God, lest the homage which belongs to Him be given to the idols, and also to protect many indians against the cruel sacrifices, during which so many were killed either on the mountains or at night in the secret places. In this custom the natives were hardened. Although they no longer sacrificed so many as they did formerly, nevertheless under the instigation of the devil they look for opportunities to offer sacrifices. …the sacrifices and cruelties of this land and its people exceeded all others in the world, according to what we read and what will now be said."

One of the other religious writers prominent in the ethnohistorical sources on cannibalism and sacrifice is Diego Durán. Durán wrote his Historia de las Indias de Nueva España y islas de tierra firme before his death in 1588. It was first published based on a manuscript copy found in the National Library of Madrid in 1867 (Gomez 1961:I, 166). His work is cited often in modern literature.

Durán (1994:406-407) professes a belief that continued in popularity until more recent centuries, that of the children of Israel populating and civilizing distant lands. This too is an act of Othering, in that civilized attributes of a people need exogenous explanation, that the 'savages' can not be responsible for invention of the civilized features of their own region or culture. Duran writes:

"Seeing that their stories are so like those found in the Holy Scriptures I cannot help but believe that [these Indians are the children of Israel].

"As proof of this, in order to make it clear, I wish to mention the rites, idolatries, and superstitions these people had. They made sacrifices in the mountains, and under trees, in dark and gloomy caves, and in the caverns of the earth. They burned incense, killed their sons and daughters, sacrificed them, and offered them as victims to their gods. They sacrificed children, ate human flesh, killed prisoners and captives of war. All of these were also Hebrew rites practiced by those ten tribes of Israel, and all were carried out with the greatest ceremony and superstitions one can imagine.

"What most forces me to believe that these Indians are of Hebrew descent is their strange insistence in clinging to their idolatries and superstitions, for they pay them much heed, just as their ancestors did. As David states, in Psalm 106, when the people were afflicted by God, they pleaded that He forgive them in His mercy; but then they forgot and returned to idolatry:

" 'And they served their idols; which were a snare unto them. Yea, they sacrificed their sons and daughters unto devils. And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood.' " (Psalm 106:36-38)

This portion of the writing raises further questions of credibility. Durán accuses the Nahuas and the tribes of Israel of the same practices. His accusations against one group is generally accepted, and not that against the other? I know of no modern writers using Durán to claim Jews are cannibals. Most significantly, in my view, it illustrates the biases of a devout Christian religious practitioner, biases based on belief in the writings found in Christian texts. Durán's anti-Semitic bias is not the least surprising given the expulsion and forced conversions of Jews in Spain during his era.

Durán's reports of violence, sacrifice, and cannibalism are numerous. I include many more quotes here because their number alone raises the issue of credibility. At no point does Durán ever claim to have witnessed any of what he reports.

Durán (1994:140) reported a conflict with Chalco and the sacrificing of war captives:

"…a great number of soldiers from Chalco were killed; there was not a man or boy in the Aztec army who did not capture one or two of the enemy or kill some. The survivors fled … they began to count the prisoners and found that they had captured three hundred seasoned warriors, without counting two hundred others of lower rank. Thus, they had captured five hundred men of Chalco. These were sent to Tenochtitlan and on the day after their arrival, by order of Tlacaelel and the king, they were immediately sacrificed to the god Huitzilopochtli."

"In this way the vow that had been sworn was fulfilled, and the temple was reddened with the blood of five hundred men. A fire sacrifice was ordained; this was the most terrible and horrendous sacrifice that can be imagined, as anyone who has read the account I have written about sacrifices will have noted. A great bonfire was built in a large brazier placed on the floor of the temple. This was called "the divine hearth." Into this great mass of flames men were thrown alive. Before they expired, their hearts were torn out of their bodies and offered to the god."

"Thus, the steps and the chamber where the brazier was placed were bathed with the blood of the prisoners."

Durán (1994:169-172) reported the sacrifice of Huaxtec captives. It is noteworthy that the discourse reveals that he is discussing events that transpired before the arrival of the Spaniards. Herein, the fact that hearsay is reported is unequivocal. Durán writes:

"Chapter XX. Which treats of the cruel sacrifice of the Huaxtecs at the hands of the Aztecs, called Tlacaxipehualiztli, which means 'Flaying of Men.' And how the lords of all the neighboring states and cities were invited to witness this spectacle and festivity."

"Many days had passed after the return of the Aztecs from the war in the land of the Huaxtecs. Tlacaelel then reminded King Motecuhzoma of the work on the temple they had begun to build, and said that a great stone should be carved to serve as an altar or table upon which sacrifice would be made. This Tlacaelel, in addition to being bold and cunning in the artifice of war, also invented devilish, cruel, and frightful sacrifices. Motecuhzoma gave orders that the stone be carved…"

"Now that the stone had been set up, they called certain youths who lived in seclusion within the temples–some of those who were outstanding in their duties–and gave them the office of carrying out this sacrifice that the devil had invented and taught them…."

"When the festival day and the beginning of the month called Tlacaxipehualiztli, 'Flaying of Men,' approached, the Aztecs invited the lords from the entire land … they invited all the noblemen they could from the surrounding area so they would come and see what took place at that feast and realize what it signified."

"Once the guests had arrived, the king had many fine things brought from his treasury and gave these as presents … A great feast followed … the guests … were assigned booths adorned with flowers and reeds, within which they could sit and watch … the ceremony, which had been unknown to them before that time."

"The prisoners were brought out and lined up at a place called Tzompantitlan… At this place there was a long low platform upon which stood a rack where the skulls of sacrificial victims were strung and where they remained permanently as reminders of these sacrifices … Then the men who were to perform the sacrifice came out … they brought out one of the prisoners from the Huaxteca and with a rope that emerged from a hole in the middle of the great round stone tied his foot around the ankle. Thus tied to the stone, he was given a wooden sword and a shield; the sword was not equipped with blades but was feathered from top to bottom … One of the men disguised as a god then approached the stone … where the prisoner was tied. The poor wretch threw the balls at him, but these were repelled by the sacrificer (or executioner) if he was skillful. Thereupon the prisoner picked up his feathered sword and defended himself … as soon as the victim was wounded–on his leg, on his arms, or on any part of his body–four priests … ascended the stone and laid the wounded man on his back, holding him down by the feet and hands. The high priest then rose from his seat, went to the stone, and opened the chest of the victim with the knife. He took out the heart and offered the vapor that rose from it to the sun. As soon as the heart had cooled, he delivered it to the priest, who placed it in a vessel called the cuauhxicalli [eagle vessel], which was another large stone dedicated to the sun. In its center it contained a cavity that was also used for another type of sacrifice."

"These ceremonies were performed in the case of all the prisoners, each one in his turn…"

"The lords from other cities and from the provinces who had come to observe the sacrifice were shocked and bewildered by what they had seen and they returned to their homes filled with astonishment and fright."

"By ancient tradition the feast was followed, the next day, by another celebration. At this time the king gave his noblemen the usual gifts … Once the rewards had been distributed, those who had been sacrificed were flayed and the Tototectin put on the skins and wore them. Carrying their shields in one hand and rattle staffs in the other, they went from house to house. First they visited the houses of the nobility and chieftains and went to all the other houses after these, asking for alms, wearing the skins all the time. The rich gave them mantles, breechcloths, and waistbands; the common people gave them ears of corn and other edibles. For twenty days these men begged. At the end of this time they had gathered great quantities of clothing and food. The flayed skins had been worn in the manner the god [Xipe Totec] was portrayed."

"When the twenty days had passed, they took off the reeking skins and buried them in a special room in the temple. In this way ended the feast and the sacrifice of the Huaxtecs, which had been made to solemnize the first use of the carved stone. And here ends the chapter on this subject I found written in the Nahuatl language."

The last sentence is intriguing. Durán says he found this information written in the Nahuatl language. This illustrates another problem with the ethnohistorical documents. It is often unclear whose writing is being presented. The ethnohistorical document is attributed to a specific author, but the actual source is a mystery. There is no way of ascertaining the author's sources, not to mention the veracity of the writing upon which the writer relied.

An anonymous manuscript found in 1856 in the friary of San Francisco, Mexico, treats the same material as Durán, though much more briefly (Warren 1964:81). Works by several other ethnohistorical writers, all presenting very similar material, have been attributed, along with Durán's material, to an unknown manuscript (Warren 1964:81). Below, in the last quote, Durán references a "Historia." The reader is left wondering to what "Historia" he refers.

Juan de Tovar, who had been directed to write a native history by the viceroy, completed his work around 1579, when it was taken to Spain (Warren 1964:80). Deprived of his own book, Tovar used Durán's text when rewriting his work at the request of Juan de Acosta, and Acosta, when writing his Historia natural y moral de las indias, copied sections of Tovar's work verbatim (Warren 1964:80). Such practices confuse the sources of information and bring into question the authority of the author and the historical accuracy of the writers. Another dimension of this analysis is the fact that the friars writing the books are doing so on orders from secular authorities. Undoubtedly, the friars were fully aware of the activities of the Inquisition (if not members of the religious order conducting the Inquisition), and aware of the likely consequences should their work product deviate from the expectations of their masters. I further discuss the role of the Inquisition below.

Returning to Durán's work, Durán (1994:188-193) reported sacrifices associated with prisoners from Coaixtlahuaca:

"Chapter XXIII. Which treats of the sacrificial ceremony performed in honor of the stone called the cuauhxicalli, image of the sun. With a description of how the prisoners from Coaixtlahuaca were sacrificed upon it."

"…On the next day a second feast was held by the warriors known as the Knights of the Sun, called Cuacuauhtin, that is to say, "Eagles." This was the festival of the sun that these people called Nauholin [Four Motion], which in the Book of the Calendar and Gods I wrote I translated as "the fourth movement of the sun." In this festival, as I have related, a man painted red was sacrificed in the name of the sun."

"…At this feast much human flesh was consumed; there was also fasting and solemn ritual. The curious reader can consult the above-mentioned book I wrote on the ceremonies and rites"

"…The Knights of the Sun had their insignia and distinctive attire by which they were recognized, and which permitted them to be distinguished from other warriors. They were the only ones who celebrated the feast of the sun, who were allowed to eat human flesh, and who could keep as many women as they could support."

Durán (1994:233-34) describes how war was waged to obtain sacrificial victims for cannibalistic purposes:

"Chapter XXIX. Which treats of how the king and the nobility decided to wage perpetual war on Tlaxcala, Huexotzinco, Cholula, Atlixco, Tecoac, and Tliliuhquitepec. And how men were to be brought to be sacrificed during the great feasts and how soldiers and the sons of the lords were to practice warfare."

"Tlacaelel…ordered that sacrifices take place more often. Another reason for this order was that he had acquired a taste for human flesh since the lords ate it frequently. It is also true that Tlacaelel had been persuaded or blinded by the devil and was now inventing a thousand cruel acts, all of which he made into law before his death. He was obeyed so blindly that everything he ordained was done."

"So he discussed with King Motecuhzoma the business we had begun to tell about in the last chapter: that the gods were to be given sacrifices of men whenever they desired these and that there be places where the sons of noblemen, enthusiasts in the art of war, be able to train, to practice their skill and show their valor, and to bring in captives."

"The king, who agreed with this plan, summoned all his great warriors and when they had gathered he notified them that they were now to fight in a military marketplace, as if they were going to a regular market on certain days, where they would buy honor and glory with their blood and their lives. At the same time the sons of noblemen would be occupied in this way and military activity would not be lost. But the main purpose behind the establishing of this human marketplace was to honor, to revere, Huitzilopochtli. Since he now had his temple it was only just that there be victims to offer to the god and none would be more welcome to him than captives from Tlaxcala, Huexotzinco, Cholula, Atlixco, Tecoac, and Tliliuhquitepec. These six cities had been chosen to serve him and provide him with [human] food, for men of other barbaric nations of alien tongue were not desired by him, nor would he accept them. Inasmuch as most of the land had already been conquered by the Aztecs and no one dared rebel against them, if the god were to wait for some people to rebel, to commit some transgression in order that war be declared and the god be given sacrificial victims, then he might never receive them. But by going to war nearby the soldiers would go happily as if they were enjoying some festivity, going to be entertained."

Durán goes on to directly quote speeches in the discussions of plans. This certainly brings his accounts into question, since, at the time of the events he describes, there was no writing form known to provide quotations.

Next follows Durán's (1994:402-407) account of Motecuhzoma's coronation, including his often-cited report of numbers of sacrificed victims:

"Chapter LIV. Which treats of the solemn festivities that were held at the coronation and public anointment of King Motecuhzoma and of the many men who were sacrificed."

"The powerful King Motecuhzoma returned from the war of conquest and was welcomed with joyful celebrations, as was correct and due to a man of his prominence. The glory and honor of the victory were attributed to him. The officials then determined that the public coronation festivities were to take place and that these acts were to be clearly manifest to all men and all women so they would be made aware of that personage from whom, when necessary, they should solicit aid for their needs. Also, as was customary on these important occasions, everyone was waiting anxiously to witness the spectacular event. There was a certain urgency for this, for there were now plenty of victims for sacrifice… It was stated that wars have their time and place and that between the Aztecs and these other cities there was no real enmity. But that the flower war that did exist had as its purpose recreation for the army, on the one hand, and, on the other, pleasure and food for the gods."

"…On the fourth day, after the festivities had ended, Motecuhzoma was anointed and crowned in public by the two kings of Tezcoco and Tacuba and by the high priest. All the rites and ceremonies and splendid acts that were indispensable according to their laws were performed. These culminated with the anointing of Motecuhzoma, the applying of the divine pitch to his body–which was like consecrating him as a god–during which he promised to take care of the divine things and defend the deities and the law. Motecuhzoma was dressed in the royal garments, a diadem was placed upon his head, and other insignia of kings were given him. He promised, he swore, to observe the civil laws and statutes and watch over the preeminence and glory of his city. He would support the wars and defend the republic or die in the attempt."

"When the festivities had ended, Motecuhzoma seated himself in the supreme place, the Divine Seat, the Place of the Gods, and the war captives were brought out. All of them were sacrificed in honor of his coronation (a painful ceremony), and it was a pathetic thing to see these wretches as victims of Motecuhzoma. It had become as common among these people to sacrifice men on feast days as it is for us to kill lambs or cattle in the slaughterhouse. I am not exaggerating; there were days in which two thousand, three thousand, five thousand, or eight thousand men were sacrificed. Their flesh was eaten and a banquet was prepared with it after the hearts had been offered to the devil."

"When the sacrifice was finished and the steps and courtyard were bathed in human blood, everyone went to eat raw mushrooms. With this food they went out of their minds and were in a worse state than if they had drunk a great quantity of wine. They became so inebriated and witless that many of them took their lives with their own hands. Under the strong influence of these mushrooms they saw visions and had revelations about the future, since the devil spoke to them in their drunken madness."

Durán's (1994:474) discourses about sacrifice and cannibalism continue with a report about Mixteca prisoners:

"On the day of the ceremony one thousand Mixtec prisoners were sacrificed in the way I have described [the Tlacaxipehualiztli festival] at length in the Book of the Gods and Rites."

"…The Historia tells us that when these festivities had ended, when everyone was satiated with human flesh and had seen enough blood flow from those miserable captives, Motecuhzoma ordered that all his men who had taken part in that war be brought there, especially those who had performed outstanding feats and had brought prisoners to be sacrificed … Motecuhzoma rewarded them for what they had done in that war and for the honor they had paid the gods and the pleasure they [the noblemen] had received in being given human flesh to eat. In those days the bellies of the lords were gorged with that human flesh. It is said of that king that not a day passed since he began to rule that he did not eat human flesh. For this he had many slaves and each day had one killed so he could eat that flesh, or so his guests could, or those who usually shared his meals."

To accept Durán's accounts (or, perhaps more accurately stated, his unknown sources) as truthful, means acceptance of a long list of incredulous assertions. In summary, these include 1.) the devil is the inventor and teacher of sacrifice, 2.) skull racks display sacrificial victims as permanent reminders of sacrifices, 3.) the Knights of the Sun were the only ones allowed to eat human flesh, 4.) the lords ate human flesh frequently, 5.) the thousand cruel acts invented by Tlacaelel under persuasion by the devil were all made into laws, 6.) the god Huitzilopochtli would not accept human food from nations of 'alien tongue,' 7.) as many as eight thousand men were sacrificed in one day and their flesh was eaten, 8.) after eating human flesh they ate mushrooms, became witless and mad, saw revelations of the future, were spoken to by the devil, and many killed themselves, and 9.) Motecuhzoma ate the fresh-killed human flesh of a slave every day of his rule. Additionally, Durán's beliefs included the belief that the Indians were of Hebrew descent and practiced Hebrew rites of sacrificing their children, eating human flesh, and killing prisoners and captives of war.

When considering any part of Durán's writing as possible evidence of cannibalism and sacrifice, the rest of his assertions cannot be ignored. They certainly bear on the credibility of the writing. Those who rely on Durán's writing to support the view that the Aztecs were cannibals should explain whether they accept the other beliefs Durán expresses, and if they reject these, why they accept his statements regarding cannibalism.

The list above is based solely on Durán's writings. Acceptance of the views of the other writers cited above broadens the scope of the question, "What does acceptance of the veracity of the ethnohistorical writers imply?" A summary list includes acceptance of many aspects of the religious worldview of fifteenth century Spain, including idols, hell, devils, the demon, and souls. The following actions by the natives are also asserted: cannibalism, devil worship, daily sacrifices, beheadings, crucifixions, and many forms of mutilation, including skinning, removal of bones, tearing out hearts, slashing throats, being shot with arrows by thousands of people, being dropped from a great height, and breaking every bone. This summation of the ethnohistorical discourse should suffice to illustrate the need for critical analysis and reconsideration of the cannibalism claims so readily accepted in some anthropological writing and in popular beliefs about Mesoamerican populations at the time of contact.

The Purpose of the Ethnohistorical Writing

Another important post-conquest cleric/author is Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. Sahagún also wrote of practices of sacrifice. Rather than repeat here the same type of quotations as above, I will employ the relatively well-documented and well-studied activities of Sahagún in Mexico to illustrate the contemporaneous events of censorship, repression and control of publication that prevailed at the time the ethnohistorical sources were produced.

Sahagún arrived in New Spain in 1529. He trained and educated young natives who later became collaborators in his writings (Dibble 1982:9). The early missionaries, including Motolinía (Fray Toribio de Benavente), converted Nahuatl into the Spanish alphabet. The Franciscan Order directed their early efforts of conversion and education toward sons of native rulers and native nobility (Dibble 1982:9). Instruction was in Latin and Nahuatl in preference to Spanish. The daily instruction of five to six hundred boys in the Valley of Mexico included Christian doctrine, preaching, reading, and writing. The Royal College of Santa Cruz was founded in 1536, and the four instructors, all acknowledged masters of Nahuatl, included Sahagún. Seventy boys were housed in the College. They were instructed to assist in Christian proselytizing and in translating sermons and texts into Nahuatl (Dibble 1982:9).

Sahagún acknowledged his own reliance on those he had instructed to correctly use Nahuatl. Lengthy sermons were produced by 1540, with organization, editing, and planning by Sahagún, and with writing and proper phrasing by the trained youths (Dibble 1982:10). Material that eventually became the sermons, prayers, and orations in the Florentine Codex had been written in Nahuatl by 1547. By 1555, Sahagún had prepared a native account of the Conquest (Dibble 1982:10).

After 1558, Fray Francisco de Toral, then Provincial of the Franciscans in Mexico, ordered Sahagún,

"… to write in the Mexican language that which seemed to me useful for the indoctrination, the propagation and perpetuation of the Christianization of these natives of this New Spain and as a help to the workers and the ministers who indoctrinate them." (Dibble 1982:11)

Dibble (1982:11, citing Garibay's Historia de la literatura náhuatl), reports that by 1533, Fray Andrés de Olmos had been charged with recording,

"…the ancient customs of these native Indians, … that there be some memory thereof, that the evil and imponderable might be better refuted and, if there were something good, that it might be recorded…. And the said Father (Sahagún) did so. Having seen all the paintings of ancient customs which the chiefs and leaders of these provinces possessed, and the oldest men having given answers to all he wanted to inquire of them, he made a very extensive book of all this."

The purpose of these writings was essentially religious. By 1559, Sahagún requested information on specific topics from ten or twelve elderly informants in Tepepulco. The native informants provided paintings (codices). Four students trained at the College wrote verbal explanations on the paintings. Sahagún drew his material from these. In 1561 he moved to Tlatelolco, and, with eight or ten local informants and four or five trilingual students of the College:

"…for a year or more, all I brought written from Tepepulco was amended, explained and expanded. And all was re-written in a poor hand, because it was written in great haste." (Dibble 1982:13)

After 1565 Sahagún amended his writings, divided them into the twelve books of the Manuscrito de 1569, the whereabouts of which is unknown (Dibble 1982:14). Sahagún had sent a Spanish summary to Spain by 1570, the whereabouts of which is also unknown. Sahagún's other 1570 summary, Breve compendio de los ritos idolatricos de Nueva España, sent to the Pope, survives in the Vatican archives, and, with minor variations, is included in the Florentine text (Dibble 1982:15).

Sahagún and the other friars were not the only persons directed to write about native histories by their superiors. After 1572, the Spanish crown and the Council of the Indies issued orders for recording histories to describe the provinces of New Spain as follows, in parts:

"…their religion and worship, the people who taught it and their method, and everything concerning their religion; rites and customs in birth, upbringing, marriage, death, burial, and life-span; … their method of counting, the letters, quipus, or other means of knowing the past or the distant, and any other arts and sciences; how they divide time into days, months, and years, suns, or moons, or how they reckon; in short, all that they had in the time of their unbelief, and how much of it should be taken from them and how much of it should be conserved for them." (Dibble 1982:35-36).

The social and political context in which these ethnohistorical authors worked is significant, and cannot be ignored in evaluating the content of their works. Many of them may have been exposed to and influenced by the earlier writings of the friars, writings produced specifically to train the missionaries sent to all parts of New Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition and Censorship

The Spanish Inquisition had a very significant impact on writing. Spanish controls over printing date to 1502, when a pragmatic issued by Ferdinand and Isabella made licenses for printing or importing books obligatory (Kamen 1997:103). In 1564, the Council of Trent granted bishops the general power to license book printing (Kamen 1997:103). In the case of the Catechism by Fray Luis, approval by the Council of Trent and the Pope was not sufficient to deter the inquisitors from demanding corrections before the book was allowed to circulate (Kamen 1997:111).

Various indices listed banned books. The 1559 Spanish Index even prohibited works circulating in manuscript form. The Index of Prohibited Books issued by the Council of Trent in 1564 influenced subsequent indices, including an expurgatory Index requiring the excising of offending passages from otherwise orthodox books (Kamen 1997:113). By 1583, the General Index banned 2,315 books, an increase from 700 in 1571, and the 1584 Index expurgated many more. Book burning was common at the time of discovery. The Arabic books in Granada were burned on order of a royal decree in 1501 (Kamen 1997:114). In 1552 the Inquisition ordered that heretical books be burned in public. A Jesuit working in the Barcelona Holy Office reported mountains of books burned on seven or eight occasions (Kamen 1997:114). The important ethnohistorical works were written, and nearly all native books burned, in this repressive and controlling environment.

In 1575, the Father Commissary General Fray Rodrigo de Sequera arrived in New Spain. He ordered Sahagún to translate his Nahuatl books into Spanish. Sahagún recovered his dispersed manuscripts in 1575. He produced two bilingual manuscripts, one during 1576-1577, which was transmitted to Spain in 1578 and is unknown today. The second, produced during the years 1578-1579 (and also confiscated by the crown) and transmitted to Spain after 1580, is the Florentine Codex, now in the Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana in Florence, Italy (Dibble 1982:15). The manuscripts may have been sent to Florence for the approval of Medici Pope Leo XI before 1605, or possibly even before 1588 (Dibble 1982:16) (possibly ensuring their survival). One manuscript with only the Spanish version, the General History of the Things of New Spain, was first preserved in the Franciscan convent in Tolosa, Navarra, and, in 1783, moved to the Library of the Royal Academy of History in Madrid (León-Portilla 1958:23).

The earliest published Spanish editions of the Historia derive from copies of the Códice Castellano de Madrid in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid (Dibble 1982:21). The paper and handwriting are uniform and the work of a single copyist. It is a copy of the Florentine text, although the copyist abridged, omitted, and altered the Spanish text with frequency (Dibble 1982:22). Given the controls on publications, and the expurgatory role of officials, the presently surviving end-products of Sahagún's writings and of others, documents produced by copyists, cannot be reliably considered works by their reputed authors. Documents attributed to authors in America can actually be the product of copyists working in Spain, producing significantly altered works under the watchful Council of the Indies and the Inquisition.

The Council of Trent decisions and their implementation by the Inquisition in Spain (1576-1577) resulted in direct repression of writing on pre-Columbian civilizations (Dibble 1982:36). New royal orders demanded confiscation of manuscripts and delivery of books to crown authorities. Sahagún's General History was singled out in a royal decree dated on April 22, 1577. The Royal Decree relative to the General History of the Things of New Spain reads (my translation from the Spanish in the Codice Franciscano):

"The King. - Mr. Martin Enriquez, our Viceroy, Governor and Captain General of New Spain, and President of our Royal Audience thereof. From some letters which you have written us we have understood that Brother Bernardino of Sahagún of the Order of Saint Francis has composed a Universal History of the most noted things of New Spain, which is a very copious computation of the rites, ceremonies and idolatries which the indians used in their infidelity, divided into twelve books and in the Mexican language; and though it is understood that the zeal of said Brother Bernardino has been good, and with the wish that his work bear fruit, it does not seem convenient that this book be printed or distributed in any form in those parts, for (some origins of consideration) several reasons; and so we command you that after you receive this our decree, with much diligence you procure those books and without there remaining original or some translation, you send them with good security on the first occasion to our Council of the Indies, for their review; and you are given notice to not consent that in any form some person write things which appertain to superstitions and the way of life which these indians had, in any language, because so agrees with service to God, our Lord, and (with) our (service)." Madrid, 22nd of April of 1577. Signed: "I the King"

Sahagún naively wrote to King Philip II in 1578, saying he could copy the books again if the volumes had not been properly delivered. This prompted renewed, stricter orders depriving Sahagún of all manuscripts still in his possession (Dibble 1982:35-36) including the Florentine Codex. The originality of the text is questionable due to the confiscations and control of the documents. The veracity is questionable because of the influences on the original writing and the degree of control over writing exercised by the Inquisition and the Council of the Indies. These factors must be considered in addition to the biases on the parts of authors.

The Florentine Codex, albeit a primary Nahuatl source, was nonetheless written under the supervision of Sahagún by Natives trained from childhood by Sahagún and the other friars. This certainly raises questions about whose perspective is portrayed. No evidence of original manuscripts remains. The Nahuatl in Sahagún's revised version of the codex, the manuscript known as the Florentine Codex, is probably the most reliable version. The Madrid Codex in Spanish, the version housed in the Múseo de America in Madrid, Spain, differs dramatically. The issue of versions, in addition to that of biases, must be considered.

Regarding the bias and purpose in the codex, Dibble (1982:35) writes:

"On the premise that the conversions of the first two or three decades after the Conquest had been superficial, that idolatry persisted unchecked because it went undetected, and that it must be recognized before it could be combated, Sahagún, supported by his superiors in the order, produced the 'twelve Books of the divine, or rather, idolatrous, human, and natural things of this New Spain.' Knowing what to look for, missionaries would consequently know what to combat… the work had to present not only the ancient customs but also the language in which these ancient and quite possibly dangerous customs probably would unsuspectedly lurk."

One last consideration I wish to address is the influence of the earliest Spanish writers in New Spain on new arrivals. Documents, including some of those discussed above, were produced specifically to teach the new recruits to the missionization efforts about native customs. The attitudes and information discussed above must have been widely disseminated among the friars and authorities of the crown. I present the following ethnohistorical source to raise the question of how early writings and training of later arrivals may have influenced the prevailing paradigm more than a half century after the conquest of Tenochtitlan.

At the same time that the Council of Trent, the Council of the Indies, the Inquisition and the crown were confiscating and burning books in earnest, the Spanish crown also sought to obtain information about the conquered realm. On orders of the Spanish monarch, a standardized, fifty-question survey, prepared in 1577, was used to survey hundreds of communities (Isaac 2002:204). Of the resulting original 133 Relaciones Geográficas, 110 survive today. Issac (2002) studied 105 of these. His results can be variously interpreted. In the context of the information above, I question whether the Relaciones reflect the actuality of prehispanic history, a lifetime removed and largely beyond the reach of living memories by the time of their writing. I suspect that the Relaciones express the views and paradigms of the Spaniards and reflect their milieu of censorship more so than reporting actual events.

Isaac (2002) studied 105 of these relations, and reported allegations of cannibalism in 37 percent of cases. In 95 evaluative statements on Indian culture, 50 percent are derogatory. The derogatory assessments more frequently alleged cannibalism. Of those alleging cannibalism, 23 percent do not mention the information sources and 55 percent do not mention who the consumers of human flesh were.


Cannibalism, while admittedly a difficult subject for anthropologists, needs to be addressed in a careful and critical fashion. This need was clearly illustrated when, during my research, I discovered in an encyclopedia a statement that there is no doubt that Indian tribes practiced cannibalism well into the twentieth century, but because it is abhorrent to Europeans, the custom has been gradually disappearing. The reexamination of the cannibalism paradigm must include assessing the foundations of current assumptions. Anthropologists have the expertise and can take the lead in clarifying the reality of the history of cannibalism, in moving from the "cannibalism paradigm" to a view with fewer assumptions and greater critical reasoning. Careful review of all the available evidence upon which current cannibalism and human sacrifice beliefs are founded can further replacing assumptions with scientifically satisfactory information.

In time, a more accurate and scientifically grounded understanding of past cannibalism may translate into a more accurate popular view of the past. I hope this brief effort is a useful step in that direction, and that it provides, especially to those critically approaching the subject for the first time, a useful picture of the historical and cultural context of an ongoing anthropological debate.

Literature Cited.

Arens, William 1979 The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford University Press, New York.

Arens, William 1998 Rethinking Anthropophagy. In Cannibalism and the colonial world. Edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iverson, pp. 39-62. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Brand, Donald D. Ethnohistoric Synthesis of Western Mexico. Handbook of Middle American IndiansVolume 11:632- University of Texas Press, Austin.

Clark, Geoffrey Paradigms in Science and Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research 1(3):203-230.

Columbus, Christopher 1493 The Columbus Letter Translation Accessed Nov. 30, 2002.

Conklin, Beth A. 2001 Consuming grief: compassionate cannibalism in an Amazonian society. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Diaz del Castillo, Bernal 1956 The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico. Farrar, Straus and Cudahy.

Dibble, Charles E. 1982 Sahagún's Historia. In Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain Edited by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Monographs of the School of American Research, Number 14, Part I, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Durán, Diego, 1994 Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y Islas de Tierra Firme. The history of the Indies of New Spain. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by Doris Heyden. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Foster, Elizabeth Andros 1950 Motolinía's History of the Indians of New Spain. The Cortés Society.

Hulme, Peter 1998 Introduction: the cannibal scene. In Cannibalism and the colonial world. Edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iverson, pp. 1-38. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Isaac, Barry L. 2002 Cannibalism among Aztecs and their Neighbors: Analysis of the 1577-1586 Relacioners Geográficas for Nueva España and Nueva Galica Provinces. Journal of Anthropological research 58:203-224.

Kamen, Henry 1997 The Spanish inquisition: An Historical Revision. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

Klaus, Susanne 1999 Uprooted Christianity: The preaching of the Christian Doctrine in Mexico Based on the Franciscan Sermons of the 16th Century Written in Nahuatl. Verlag.

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1996 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The University of Chicago Press.

Las Casas, Bartolome de 1542 Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies. (1542) Accessed Nov. 30, 2002.

León-Portilla, Miguel 1958 Ritos, Sacerdotes y Atavíos de los Dioses. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico.

Motolinía, Fray Toribio de Benavente 1951 Motolinía's history of the Indians of New Spain (translated by Francis Borgia Steck). Academy of American Franciscan History, Washington, D.C.

Nicholson, Henry B. Religion in Prehispanic Central Mexico. Handbook of Middle American IndiansVolume 10:395. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R. 1978 Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity? Science 200(4342):611-617.

Rumsey, Alan 1999 The White Man as Cannibal in the New Guinea Highlands. In the Anthropology of Cannibalism. Edited by Laurence R. Goldman, pp105-121. Bergin and Garvey, Westport, Connecticut.

Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de 1982 Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain Edited by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Monographs of the School of American Research, Number 14, Part I, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Turner, Christy G., and Jacqueline A. 1999 Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest. University of Utah Press, Salt lake City, Utah.

Warren, J. Benedict 1964 An Introductory Survey of Secular Writings in the European Tradition on Colonial Middle America, 1503-1818. In Handbook of Middle American Indians. Edited by Robert Wauchope, Vol. 13. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Written as a term paper for ASB 591 - The Bioarchaeology of Cannibalism and Human Violence,
taught by Dr. Christy Turner, Arizona State University, Spring 2003.
Cite as:

External Links to Anthropolgy Articles:

Brief History of Cannibal Controversies and Giving Cannibalism a Human Face David F. Salisbury

Neanderthal Cannibalism at Moula-Guercy, Ardèche, France by
Defleur, White, Valensi, Slimak, and Crégut-Bonnour.

Study provides direct evidence of cannibalism in the Southwest


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