The Voracious Appetite of the Winners

Cannibalism, sacrifices, and other Amerindians rituals

Agustín Muñoz-Sanz
15 min readAug 24, 2020

“The myth of the primitive is a constant touchstone and counterpoint to the narrative of progress. It is used across science, with almost every explanation of human phenomena containing the words “back when we were cavemen”, with pop-science pundits using this mythology to justify everything from social media addiction to rape.” Tyson Yunkaporta, “Sand Talk. How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World,” Harper One Ed., 2020, p. 111.

New World’s (Kalina or Galibi) indian family, by John Gabriel Stedman. 1818. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“Outside of this occasion, they used in Peru to sacrifice children from four or six years old to ten. Most of this was in businesses that imported the Inga [The Inca’s King], as in his illnesses to bring him health; also, he did it when he went to war looking for victory.”

José de Acosta, S.J.: Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias, 1591.

Cannibalism doesn’t mean “I’d eat you.” It means "I’m eating you”.

Anthropophagy habit practiced by some tribes in the New World was among the many extraordinary events that most surprised to 15th and 16th-centuries Spanish chroniclers. They certified the facts and expressed their horror in the chronicles: Many letters, reports, and books written during his extended stay there, or years after coming back home in Spain.

Besides decades later of Columbus’ travels, the following explorers and conquerors (16th-century) also knew certain ritual sacrifices in staggering numbers —a fact perhaps still more impressive from the anthropological point of view, at least for some scholars.

Concerning cannibalism, the very novelty consisted that it was not only a ritual custom of undeveloped tribes. It seems that other civilizations with a high degree of cultural development, such as Aztecs and Mayans cultures, also carried it out. Both Mesoamerican peoples had a development level far beyond that of the primitive Caribbean tribes.

It was a strange circumstance because only a few hundred kilometers separated culture (Aztecs, Mayans) from ancestral barbarism (Caribs, Arawaks).

Concerning cannibalism, the very novelty was that it was not only a ritual custom of undeveloped tribes.

Caribbean anthropophagy is an excellent example of barbaric human behavior. The understandable surprise of European newcomers, among other, hundred of preaching monks, adventurers explorers, and many more, all first-line protagonists of the conquest, was then understood as devil intervention. That was a medieval idea predominating according to the mentality in the epoch.

There was a very expert witness among the first travelers: the famous Sevillian Dr. Diego Álvarez Chanca. He was the only accompanying physician of Columbus (having a university doctorate) on the second trip to the New World. Álvarez Chanca was the first studying the recently discovered lands from a professional point of view.

It is worth being cited here because he wrote a letter to the Seville’s Cabildo (the cabildo was like a current city council). Álvarez Chanca’s description is one of the first professional documents about the New World’s customs. The doctor relates the following (This is my free translation from the original Spanish):

“He found a lot of spun cotton, and cotton for spinning, and things of his maintenance, and of everything he brought a little, especially he brought four or five bones of arms and legs of men. After seeing that, we suspected that those islands were the Caribbean ones, which are inhabited by people who eat human flesh.

Cannibalism’s scenes. Engraving by Theodore de Bry.

We cannot know the actual origin of native bones described in Alvarez Chanca’s letter, but the doctor’s testimony is inevitable: “…people who eat human flesh.”

How to nominate this social practice that newcomers had just known? It seems that Christopher Columbus was the first to use the word “cannibal,” even before the Sevillian doctor did. The voice “cannibal” was a deformation of the original Caribbean term used to name one of Antilles’ many tribes’ inhabitants.

The busybodies neighbors of Caribs warriors accused them of eating their enemies (themselves) after the frequent confrontations. The enemies were other tribes (Arawaks) guided by a very different behavior than Taino’s, even though it seems that their remote geographical origin was also continental (mainland).

Arawaks summed up all the virtues of the good man fitting perfectly into the myth of paradise found (and lost). This idea presumably served as a model to Thomas More to write his celebrated essay Utopia.

A scholar of our time, William Arens, from Stony Brook University, New York, refuted all the arguments in favor of cannibalism supposedly practiced by the Caribs and other peoples. But Aren’s essay (The Man-Eater Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, Oxford University Press, 1979) was intensely criticized by several scholars.

In any case, one can say here that cannibalism was not the only way of eating human flesh. There were other forms to destroy people’s bodies and souls: ritual human sacrifices; the so-called flowery wars, that were a peculiar way of fighting; and gladiatorial sacrifices. Let’s try to analyze theses activities a bit more.

Cannibalism’s scenes, by Theodore de Bry. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Ritual sacrifices

Regarding ritual human sacrifice, the data are more explicit than those on cannibalism. They do not appear magnified because Aztecs, Mayans, and also Incas practiced the rite.

There is no doubt that Aztecs performed ritual sacrifices to their gods, particularly to Tláloc, the god of rain, and Huizichilopchtil, the god of the sun and war. The first one (The sacrifice to Tláloc) remembered the first four months of the year. Aztecs usually offered children as victims. The second one (dedicated to the god Huizichilopchtil) corresponded to the second and the fifteenth month of its calendar (The year had 18 months of twenty days). They celebrated the offerings every month.

Ritual sacrifices summed thousands of deaths for many years. Perhaps they were quantitatively less numerous than reported by many chroniclers. The reason is the following: a simple sum with a clock and a calendar in hands makes it that materially impossible: for the overwhelming ones to take place — published figures (100,000 sacrifices in a year!). In any way, someone can accept that the number of deaths was very high.

Cover of José de Acosta’s book. Photo: Loyola University Chicago.

We can know the opinion of an expert. Let’s read what Jesuit José de Acosta tells us about this practice in the Peru region (The Inca’s empire). In Chapter XIX of the Fifth Book, entitled ‘On the sacrifices of men who made,’ of his famous treatise (cover in the figure above), he wrote:

But what hurts the most about the misfortune of these sad people is the vassalage that they paid to the devil by sacrificing men to him, who is in the image of god, and were raised enjoying god. In many nations, they used to kill, to accompany their deceased, as has been said above, the people who were most agreeable to them, and whom they imagined they could better use in the afterlife. Outside of this occasion, they used in Peru to sacrifice children from four to six years old to ten, and most of this was in businesses that imported the Inga [the Inca’s King], as in his illnesses to bring him health; also, when he went to war for victory. And when they gave the tassel to the new Inga, who was the king’s symbol, like here the scepter or crown, on the solemnity, they sacrificed a quantity of two hundred children from four to ten years old: a harsh and inhuman spectacle.”

The Spanish writer illustrates his chronicle with the expeditious methods followed by the actors of the ritual. In addition to offering numbers and some reasons why they (Incas) made the sacrifices:

The way to sacrifice persons was to drown them and bury them with specific gestures and ceremonies; other times, the victims were slaughtered and smeared with their blood from ear to ear.

It seems that the victims were not just children:

They also sacrificed maidens of those who brought the Inga from the monasteries, which we discussed above. There was a very significant and very general abuse in this same genre. It was that when some primary or typical Indian was sick, and the doomsayer told him that he was indeed going to die, they sacrificed their son to the sun or Viracocha, telling him to be content with him, and that he would not take his father’s life.”

The Aztecs, or Mexicans, as Acosta calls them, were not less expeditious than Incas. According to his book, one brutal way of the relation of these people to their gods was to fatten the victim as if it was a pig gaining weight before being slaughtered. Previously to offer the fattened victim to the adored god, the Aztecs made an astonishing ritual act:

Modo de sacrificar sacando el coraçón y dando con él en el rostro del ydolo; era el común, by Juan de Tovar, around 1585. Photo: World Digital Library.

José de Acosta describes it in the chapter In a strange form of worship that the Mexicans used. The Jesuit use the narrative pulse of a modern journalist, or writer:

“They took a captive, the one that seemed best to them, and, before sacrificing him to their idols, they named him after the same goddess, to whom he surrendered, and dressed and adorned him with the same ornament as their idol, and said that he represented the same idol. And for all the time that this representation lasted, which in some parties was one year and in others, it was six months and in others less, in the same way, they adored and worshiped the idol itself, and ate and he drank and lazed. And when he went through the streets, people would go out to worship him, and they all offered him much alms. They brought the children and the sick to him so that he would heal and bless them, and in everything they let him do his will, except that, because he did not run away, ten or twelve men always accompanied him wherever he went. And he, to make them reverence where he passed, would touch from time to time a pipe, with which the people would prepare to worship him.”

The end of the moving process comes:

“When he was seasoned and fatty, the party would come; they would open, kill, and eat, making the solemn sacrifice of him.”

The current scientific and academic data are more concise but less forceful than those offered in the ancient chronicles. In two hundred skeletons found in the subsoil of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico, investigators founded irrefutable anatomical evidence of sacrifices.

Flowery wars

According to the researchers, the Aztecs used to celebrate the so-called “Flowery Wars.” These fights were a kind of mystical combat or exercise whose objective was to get prisoners — the unfortunate victims of such a peculiar way of fighting caught alongside children and women.

Sometimes, when there was a shortage of prisoners, the Aztecs bought slaves in Tlatelolco market, for the same purpose of obtaining fresh flesh. Naturally, the persons chosen in this way were be later sacrificed alive on the god worshiped altar.

Flowery wars.

The sun’s idolaters made the sacrifice at the top of the pyramid-altar while the victim still alive: lying face-up on the sacrificial table, with the hands and feet bound. The principal priest cut the thorax with an obsidian knife. The priest used to reduce the body by the middle of the chest. After opening the rib cage, the religious man tore out the victim’s heart with his clerical hands. The victim’s body, still breathing, would fall down the stairs, from the top of the pyramid to the underground. The corpse remains warm and bathed in its blood and taken to spectators’ houses by many macabre ritual witnesses. Then they would eat the trophy, after skinning it. Lastly, they would use the heartless skin as a prestigious adornment.

Gladiatorial sacrifices

There was another third way to find fresh meat to satisfy the hungry gods’ greed: it was the gladiatorial sacrifice. This kind of ritual was applied only to the noble’s gentlemen of the defeated enemies. The rite consisted of a hard and disproportionate fight between the prisoner and four Aztec warriors, one after the other, until the warriors beat the prisoner, or the prisoner defeated them (Aztecs). But there was a trick in case things didn’t go well: even if the condemned man won the contest, they offered him to the gods.

It was supposed to be doing in a more dignified way than with the wretches of hearts stolen in life. In any case, the idolaters placed the perforated skulls of the sacrificed in the so-called “tzompantli,” a stone and wooden structures that were not exclusive to the Aztecs. Mayans, Toltecs, and the residents of Tlatelolco also made sacrifices, a fact which indicates that it was a Mesoamerican trait, more than exclusive of a culture or civilization.

A tzompantli, or skull rack, as shown in the post-Conquest Ramirez Codex or Tovar Codex.

Spanish chroniclers were very exaggerated in terms of the number of skulls found in the “tzompantli” (more than ten thousand, when in fact, they did not exceed two hundred). It is not known when human sacrifices began. Probably the first was that of the queen of Culhuacán. The rite definitively consolidated between 1325 and 1521.

Chronicle of many deads foretold

It is not pleasant for me to detail these rites and habits in divulgatory work like this. So, I take advantage of external help. Once again, relying on Father Acosta’s authority and the exhaustive precision of his stories. One can entrust the informative effort in the chapter “On the horrible sacrifices of men used by the Mexicans” of his previously cited book:

“Although in killing children and sacrificing their children, those from Peru were ahead of those from Mexico. I have not read or understood that Mexicans used this. Still, in the number of men they sacrificed, and in the horrible way with which did, they exceeded those of Peru. Even as many nations there are in the world, and so that the great misfortune in which these people were blind to the devil may see, I will refer at length to the inhuman use that it had in this world part.”

The chronicler later recounts how the butchers selected the victims:

“First of all, they fought the men who sacrificed, and if they were not captives, they did not make these solemn sacrifices. It seems that they followed the style of the ancients. According to authors mean, that’s why they called the victim to the slaughter: it was a thing defeated. They also called it to host, “quasi ab hoste,” (in Latin, if the enemy) because it was an offering made by their enemies, although the use was extending one word and the other to all kinds of sacrifice. Indeed, the Mexicans did not sacrifice their idols. Their captives, and for having captives for their sacrifices, they were their frequent wars; And so when one and the other fought, they tried to have their opponents alive, and to arrest them, and do not kill them, to enjoy their sacrifices.”

Azteca Sacrifices. Códex Magliabecchiano. Photo: Foundation for Advenacemento of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc (FAMSI).

Here is the method:

“The way they had in these sacrifices was that in that palisade of skulls, which was said above, they gathered those sacrificed. At the foot of this barrier made a ceremony with them, and it was that they were all put in a line at the foot of it with people guarding, surrounding them. Then a priest dressed in a short alb full of fringes on the border would come out. He would descend from the top of the temple with an idol made of dough of pigtails and corn kneaded with honey. It had the eyes of green beads, and the teeth of corn kernels, and came as fast as they could down the steps of the temple. They climbed over a large stone fixed in a very high hermitage in the middle of the patio. The stone was called ‘Quauxicalli,’ which means the stone of the eagle.”

The priest went up a ladder, opposite the “humilladero” [This Spanish word means a holy place: Usually found at the entrances or exits of the villages, along the roads, with a cross or image]. Later, he (the priest) descended on the other side, embracing the idol.

The priest went up to the place where those who were waiting for their sacrifice. He showed the icon to each one in particular, from one side to the other, and saying to the victims: “This is your god.” After he had just shown it, the priest descended the steps on the other side. All those who were to die went in procession to the place where the ritual happened. There, the ministers ready to make the sacrifices were waiting.

And the chronicler details the operation of actual “thoracic surgery”:

“Ordinary way of sacrifice was to open the chest to which they sacrificed, and taking out the half-alive heart; the man, thrown to roll through the steps of the temple, and bathed in blood. For a better understanding is to know that six sacrificers, constituted in that dignity, would go out to the place of sacrifice. The four to have the feet and hands of the one sacrificed, and another for the throat-cutting breast. They remove the heart of the sacrificed, called to these chachalmúa, who in our language is the same as minister of a sacred thing: this was a supreme dignity, and among them held in much, which inherited a “mayorazgo” matter.”

“The sixth of the minister who had the office of killing was held and revered as supreme priest or pontiff. The name was different according to the difference in the times and solemnities in which he sacrificed; likewise, he changed the clothes when they went out to exercise. his trade at different times.

With this attire, he dressed in the same figure of the devil, that seeing them come out with such bad taste, put great fear to all the people. “

Until the most algid moment arrives:

“The supreme priest had in his hand a large, very sharp and full flint knife; another priest had a necklace made of wood carved in the manner of a snake. All six stood before the idol and performed their humiliation, and placed themselves in order next to the stone. A pyramidal, as was above said, to be in front of the door of the idol chamber. This stone was so pointed that the one to be sacrificed, lying on its back, would bend in such a way that by dropping the knife on the chest, it was effortless for a man to open up. “

After priests had put in order, they took out the imprisoned in the wars, those who will sacrifice at the festival, and, very accompanied by people on guard, they carried them up those long stairs, all in a row, and naked in the flesh, to the place where the ministers were. As each one arrived in his order, the six priests grabbed the victim, one on one foot, and one on the other, one with one hand, and one with another, and threw it. The victim’s back was on top of a pointed stone. The fifth of these ministers would put the necklace to his throat, and the high priest would open his chest with the knife with a strange swiftness, ripping out his heart with his hands; He showed it to the sun, to whom he offered that heat and steam of the heart; and then he would return to the idol and throw it at his face. The sacrificed body would be thrown and rolling down the steps of the temple with great ease because they placed the stone so close to stairs that there were not two feet of space between the rock and the first step. And thus, with a kick, the bodies were thrown down the ladder.

When the horrible human earthquake end, sequels follow:

“And in this way, they sacrificed all that was, one by one. After they killed and thrown down the bodies, the owners, by whose hands they imprisoned, lifted them and carried them away and distributed them among themselves. They ate them, celebrating solemnity with them, which, no matter how few they were, always went over forty and fifty, because there were men very skilled in captivating. The same did all the other comarca nations, imitating the Mexicans in their rites and ceremonies. in service of their gods. “

Previously narrated stories are undoubtedly tremendous to today’s sensibility, but it is impossible to say more or describe historic events better. José de Acosta practiced in the 16th-century a narrative typical of the present time best journalism. Crude, but real.

It is not correct to judge the past’s facts with the glasses and the look of the present because we would fall into presentism, a historiographic sin. The history of humankind remembers the title of a famous Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, because that all that happened centuries or millennial ago is the chronicle of many deaths foretold. The explication is simple: New World people’s flesh (or body) was the same as that of the Old World visitors. And the soul, very similar. Since the beginning of time, humanity is writing its autobiography’s book with blood ink.

Engraving by Theodor de Bry for a Bartolomé de las Casas’ book. The other face of the coin.

Since the beginning of time, humanity is writing its autobiography’s book with blood ink.



Agustín Muñoz-Sanz

Medical Doctor (Infectious Diseases specialist/Professor of Medicine) and writer (narrative, theater).