We May Never Truly Fathom Other Cultures


EXCERPT: If they’re honest and humble enough, people who study societies that existed in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans will admit that they don’t really understand those societies. They’ll know the facts about pre-Hispanic cultures and chronologies, yet how people in those societies thought, their values and psychologies, remain maddeningly out of reach. It’s like reading poetry in translation: You’ll know what it’s about, and you’ll get the basic meaning, but you’ll never completely grasp the nuance. “There is something in their way of thinking that is very alien to us,” Harvard archaeologist Gary Urton once told me. He was talking about the Inca of South America, which he has a spent a lifetime studying.

I don’t think any of us living today can comprehend the violence of worship in the Mexica culture (or Aztecs, as they are more popularly known), which I’ve written about for Archaeology. The Mexica waged war not principally to defeat rival states or gain territory, but to gather warm bodies for human sacrifice. Prisoners were hustled up to the temple summit, where a priest would carve out their hearts and drop them into a cavity in a stone eagle. Then, while still quivering, the de-hearted prisoner would be tossed over a precipice. When the Spaniards (not exactly peaceable men themselves) arrived in 1519, they said the center of Tenochtitlan smelled like a slaughterhouse, so thick was the odor of human flesh. At the Templo Mayor, the central altar whose ruins stand in Mexico City, archaeologists have found human bones packed so tightly they formed a kind of floor. They have found human skulls mounted on spits and displayed on the altar, for the public to admire. The Mexica made devotional objects out of skulls and human skin. Some modern writers have tried to show that the Spanish conquistadors exaggerated the human sacrifice; archaeology has shown that, if anything, they lowballed it.

What was the reason for all this carnage? Archaeologists will tell you the Mexica were reenacting their own creation myths, or that they genuinely thought that if they stopped sacrificing people to the rain god Tlaloc, he would stop sending rain. Or the sun would stop rising. Those of a more Marxist bent say that sacrifice was the way the ruling classes intimidated workers. All these explanations are plausible; none of them really satisfies. One Mexican archaeologist offered me all these theories and more before finally admitting, “I don’t know.”

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