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A Bizarre 500-Year-Old Aztec Tower Made of Human Skulls Is Even More Terrifying Than We Previously Thought

Archaeologists excavating a famous Aztec “tower of skulls” in Mexico City discovered a new section with 119 human remains.

According to CNN’s Hollie Silverman, the discovery boosts the total number of skulls displayed in the late 15th-century edifice known as Huey Tzompantli to more than 600.

The tower, unearthed five years ago by archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), is thought to be one of seven that previously stood in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital.

It’s close to the ruins of the Templo Mayor, a 14th- and 15th-century religious structure devoted to the war deity Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc.

The fresh skulls, discovered in the tower’s eastern part, comprise at least three children’s craniums. Archaeologists recognized the bones based on their size and tooth development.

Previously, researchers assumed that the skulls in the building belonged to vanquished male fighters, but new research reveals that some belonged to women and children, as Reuters reported in 2017.

“Although we can’t tell how many of these people were fighters, possibly some were prisoners intended for sacrifice rites,” archaeologist Barrera Rodrguez said in an INAH release.

“We know they were all made sacrosanct.” That is, they were transformed into presents for the gods or even personifications of the deities, for which they were adorned and treated as such.”

According to J. Weston Phippen’s 2017 Atlantic article, the Aztecs displayed victims’ skulls in smaller racks throughout Tenochtitlan before transporting them to the bigger Huey Tzompantli edifice. The lime-bonded bones were arranged into a “huge inner-circle that raise[d] and widen[ed] in a succession of rings.”

While the tower may appear terrifying to contemporary eyes, INAH explains that Mesoamericans saw the ceremonial sacrifice that built it as a method of keeping the gods alive and preventing the cosmos from being destroyed.

“This vision, inexplicable to our religious system,” the statement reads, “makes the Huey Tzompantli a building of life rather than death.”

Archaeologists believe the tower, which spans around 16.4 feet in diameter, was erected in three phases between 1486 and 1502 during the Tlatoani Ahuzotl kingdom. The ninth Aztec ruler, Ahuzotl, led the empire in conquering sections of modern-day Guatemala as well as lands around the Gulf of Mexico.

During his rule, the Aztecs’ realm expanded to its greatest extent, and Tenochtitlan expanded greatly as well. Ahuzotl erected Malinalco’s magnificent temple, installed a new aqueduct to feed the city, and established a powerful administration. Accounts claim that as many as 20,000 prisoners of war were sacrificed during the dedication of the new temple in 1487, however, this figure is debatable.

In chronicles regarding their conquest of the area, Spanish conquistadors Hernán Cortés, Bernal Daz del Castillo, and Andrés de Tapia documented the Aztecs’ skull racks. According to J. Francisco De Anda Corral of El Economista, de Tapia stated that the Aztecs placed tens of thousands of skulls “on a gigantic theater constructed of lime and stone, and on its stairs were numerous heads of the deceased embedded in the lime with the fangs pointing outward.”

According to the statement, when Spanish conquerors and their Indigenous allies captured Tenochtitlan in the 1500s, they demolished portions of the towers, distributing the buildings’ components around the area.

According to BBC News, researchers uncovered the gruesome monument in 2015 while repairing a structure built on the site of the Aztec capital.

The cylindrical rack of skulls is located near the Metropolitan Cathedral, which was erected between the 16th and 19th centuries over the ruins of the Templo Mayor.

“The Templo Mayor continues to astonish us at every stage,” Mexican Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto said in a statement. “Without a question, the Huey Tzompantli is one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries in our nation in recent years.”

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