Conquistadors butchered Aztec women and children in 1521 as revenge for Spaniards being slaughtered and eaten by the natives months earlier, new evidence reveals

  • Villagers in Tecoaque captured, slaughtered and ate captive Spaniards in 1520
  • In retaliation, Cortés ordered the town and its people destroyed months later
  • At least a dozen women were brutally killed along with children as young as 5
  • Before the attack, villagers tried to hide evidence of the massacre in wells
  • The assault on Tecoaque came just months before the fall of the Aztec capital

Anthropologists have pieced together the grisly details of one of the most gruesome encounters between Spanish conquistadors and the Aztecs in late-16th century Mexico.

In 2019 archaeologists at a site outside Mexico City uncovered evidence of a slaughter of a European convoy by Aztec villagers—who mutilated and ate their captives, including children and pregnant women.

Now researchers have evidence Hernán Cortés ordered a retaliatory raid on the village that proved to be almost as savage.

They uncovered the remains of at least a dozen women brutally killed by Cortés’ men, even as they tried to protect children as young as 5.

Their findings, issued this week by the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico, are the culmination of years of excavation work at Tecoaque, which translates to ‘the place where they ate them’ in the Aztecs’ Nahuatl language.

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The bones of native Aztec killed at Tecoaque. Archaologists found the remains of at least 12 adult women at the site, situated in a way that suggests they were protecting children between the ages of 5 and 6

In 1520, the residents of Tecoaque, also known as Zultepec, captured a convoy of Spaniards coming from Cuba that included some 15 men, 50 women and 10 children.

The captives also included dozens of soldiers, some of whom were Cubans of African and Indigenous descent, and hundreds of allies from other tribes.

The skeletal remains of convoy members were found in an archaeological site in what is now modern-day Mexico City.

Experts believe they were kept prisoner in doorless cells, where they were fattened up for ritual sacrifices involving mutilation and cannibalism.

The remains of Europeans sacrificed by the villagers at Tecoaque. The skeletons were torn apart, with cut marks indicating the flesh had been removed from the bone

The Aztec inhabitants of Tecoaque, near modern day Mexico City, captured a convoy of Spaniards, Cuban soldiers and allied natives in 1520 

These skeletons belonged to members of a Spanish-led convoy from Cuba who were used in sacrificial rituals and eaten by Aztec villagers in Tecoaque

Slowly, over a period of months, the people of Tecoaque ate the prisoners – including toddlers and pregnant women – and strung their skulls up on racks.

Their skeletons were torn apart, with cut marks indicating the flesh was removed from their bones.


The Aztecs believed they owed a ‘blood-debt’ to the gods. 

To ‘pay’ this debt, animals as well as humans would be sacrificed and there was ritual blood-letting, where people would cut themselves to offer their blood to the gods.

The Aztecs had 18 months in one cycle, and in each of the 18 months there was ritual sacrifice. 

The victim would be painted, placed on a slab and their heart would be removed.

The body would then be thrown down the stairs of the temple. 

This may explain how the remains of the children and the hand and foot bones ended up in the tunnel in Mexico.  

‘The inhabitants of Zultepec were re-creating creation myths,’ said Enrique Martínez, an archaeologist with the National Institute of Anthropology and History, and the sacrifices were held on various ritual dates of the Mesoamerican calendar.

One man was dismembered and burned to replicate the myth of ‘El Quinto Sol,’ or the Fifth Sun.

A woman’s body was found severed in half near the remains of a dismembered child, age 3 or 4. 

When Cortés heard about the massacre eight months later in early 1521, he ordered his youngest lieutenant, Gonzalo de Sandoval, to destroy the town and its inhabitants.

Excavations suggest the residents of Tecoaque knew a reprisal was coming: They tried to cover up evidence of the massacre by throwing their victims’ bones – some of which had been carved into trophies – in cisterns, along with personal items and remains of their pack animals.

Primitive defenses established in the center of town did little to hold back De Sandoval and his men when they arrived in March 1521.

Some male warriors were able to flee, but women and children were left behind, ‘and they were the main victims,’ said Martínez.

The skeletons of a dozen adult females were uncovered at the site, situated in a way that suggests they were protecting the remains of 10 children between the ages of 5 and 6.

Photos from the excavations show children’s bones beside those of adult females, with some of the women’s skulls or arm bones turned toward the youngsters.

‘The placement of the burials suggest these people were fleeing, were massacred and buried hurriedly,’ according to Martínez. 

When the townspeople realized Cortés’ men were coming, they threw the skeletons of their victims down shallow wells. Some of the bones had been carved into trophies

Excavations from Tecoaque found disfigured bodies of pregnant women whose heads were made into skull racks

‘Women and children who were sheltering inside rooms were mutilated, as evidenced by the discovery of hacked bones on the floors. The temples were burned and the statues were decapitated.’

Months later the Spanish toppled the Aztec’s capital city, Tenochtitlan, dealing a critical blow to an empire still reeling from the death of Moctezuma II.

With a population succumbing to war and disease, Aztec culture was eventually largely eradicated.

Dismembered bodies of men, women and toddlers were found  at Tecoaque. Pictured is the skull of a Spaniard (bottom left) a child (center) and a person of African descent, alongside models of a Spanish conquistador and a person of mixed Amerindian and African descent

A painting of conquistador Hernán Cortés meeting Aztec king Montezuma  by Juan Ortega, 1885

This year Mexico is marking the 500th anniversary of Tenochca’s fall with research publications and scholarly conferences.

Martínez says Tecoaque played a pivotal role in Aztec history, both as a point of resistance against the Spanish and the beginning of the collapse of the empire.

He and fellow archaeologist Ana María Jarquín Pacheco say the population of Zultépec would have grown tremendously after the convoy was captured, as visitors from Tenochtitlan came to participate in the sacrifices.

They estimate the city could have swelled to 5,000 people.


 Backed by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Christopher Columbus led four voyages which expanded the Spanish Empire’s rule to the Americas.

Colonisation began in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean.

Spain’s colonial power continuously grew with settlements in Hispaniola, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

In 1513, the Spaniards stretched their influence to what today is known as Florida, the southern state of the United States.

Francisco Hernández de Córdoba led a failed invasion when he landed in the Yucatan peninsula in 1517.

The expedition failed when his army was almost completely wiped out during a battle in the town of Champotón against the Mayans.

Hernán Cortés would later find success in conquering the Aztec empire, a battle he first initiated with 500 men in 1519.

The Aztects lived in Central Mexico from the 14th to the 16th Centuries.

Cortés formed an alliance with other native tribes to invade the Aztec Empire’s capital city of Tenochtitlán.

The Spanish would overpower the Aztec Empire, capturing its last ruler Cuauhtémoc on August 13, 1521, thus converting Mexico into another Spanish colony.

In 1696, King Charles II issued an order that made Spanish the official language as colonisers were no longer required to learn the indigenous languages.

Mexico started its march towards independence with a series of battles that started brewing in 1810.

It gained its independence in September 1821.

Mexico was the first colony whose independence was recognised the Spaniards.

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