Friday, October 9, 2015

The Place Where They Ate Them

Crazy archaeological news from Mexico:
It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convoy were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.

Excavations at a site just east of Mexico City are yielding dramatic new details about that moment when two cultures clashed — and the native defenders, at least temporarily, were in control.

Faced with strange invaders accompanied by unknown animals, the inhabitants of an Aztec-allied town reacted with apparent amazement when they captured the convoy of about 15 Spaniards, 45 foot soldiers who included Cubans of African and Indian descent, women and 350 Indian allies of the Spaniards, including Mayas and other groups.

Artifacts found at the Zultepec-Tecoaque ruin site, show the inhabitants carved clay figurines of the unfamiliar races with their strange features, or forced the captives to carve them. They then symbolically decapitated the figurines.

"We have figurines of blacks, of Europeans, that were then intentionally decapitated," said Enrique Martinez, the government archaeologist leading this year's round of excavations at the site, where explorations began in the 1990s.

Later, those in the convoy were apparently sacrificed and eaten by the townsfolk known as Texcocanos or Acolhuas.
This was in 1520 before Cortez completed his conquest of the Aztec empire, which happened in 1521. More:
The bloodiness of the brief chapter of dominance by the indigenous group is sealed in the second name of the Zultepec ruin site, Tecoaque, which means "the place where they ate them" in Nahuatl, the Aztec language.

When Cortes' soldiers returned to the town, they found that townspeople had strung the severed heads of captured Spaniards on a wooden "skull rack" next to those of their horses, leading some to think the Indians believed that horse and rider were one beast.

When Cortes learned what happened to his followers, he dispatched a punitive expedition of troops to destroy the town, setting into motion a chain of events that actually helped preserve it.

The inhabitants tried to hide all remains of the Spaniards by tossing them in shallow wells and abandoned the town.

"They heard that he (Cortes) was coming for them, and what they did was hide everything. If they hadn't done that, we wouldn't have found these things," Martinez said. 


G. Verloren said...

"Excavations at a site just east of Mexico City are yielding dramatic new details about that moment when two cultures clashed — and the native defenders, at least temporarily, were in control."

I hate this sort of anti-historical nonsense. It's completely wrongheaded, and fails to respect the reality of the situation in any degree, giving way to myth and assumption instead.

You can't divide the conflict into "Natives" versus "Europeans". Cortez had a pitifully small number of men - advanced as their technology was, they didn't stand a chance by themselves.

Fortunately for Cortez, he was able to make allies. The Aztec Empire consisted of many different peoples all ruled by a single government. There were dissenters, and those who would oppose the extant regime. Civil war was going to break out at some point or another, but the arrival of the Europeans helped to hasten it. Cortez didn't defeat the Aztecs - rebel factions did, with his assistance.

There's also the simple issue of the unintended pandemic that resulted from the Columbian Exchange. The deathcount from warfare was utterly insignificant compared to that produced by disease. So while Cortez and his native allies were marching across the region fighting pitched battles here and there, the simple movements of disease vectors were what truly began to unravel the entire society of the region. No one was truly in control of the situation - it's just that the Europeans were able to capitalize one the chaos thanks to their immunities.

Unknown said...

With respect, you're seizing on a word, blowing the lexical issue hugely out of proportion, and then presenting a particular thesis--all Cortes did was help rebels get what they wanted--about the conquest as bald fact. Nobody, including the article (which I think simply wanted to use a bit of dramatic shorthand), denies that Cortes had native allies,that they were the majority of his army, or that very likely the Mexica empire wouldn't have fallen without the effects of disease or if the Spanish had been without allies.

It's true there's a lot of historiography of the tiresome let-us-now-praise-Cortes variety. That fight--against the thesis that Tenochtitlan and its allies fell because "that rascal Cortes was made of awesome"--has been going on since his comrades started bickering over it in the sixteenth century. But it is by no means clear, to me at least, that the right answer can be found simply by taking the opposite tack: that Cortes was essentially a bystander to a largely native event.

None of this detracts from the fascination of the article, which I'm really glad John posted.