Aztec Tower Of Human Skulls Not An Invention Of Terrified Spaniards, Archaeologists Say

Published July 5, 2017
Updated July 26, 2017

The Aztec tower of tens of thousands of skulls first described by the Spanish has been nothing more than a legend, until now.

Skulls Aztec


More than 650 skulls have been uncovered beneath a newly-excavated Aztec temple in the heart of Mexico City.

The tower of human heads is thought to have been part of the Huey Tzompantli, a massive structure of skulls that supposedly terrified Spanish soldiers when they followed Hernan Cortes to conquer the region in the early 16th century.

Until now, the tower was nothing more than a myth.

But as archaeologists keep digging, researchers have confirmed that the tower — first described in the written accounts of Andres de Tapia, a Spanish soldier, in 1521 — existed.

And though that in itself is intriguing enough, the discovery has also debunked some myths about the historical tale — namely that the tower was created using the severed heads of enemy warriors.

In fact, researchers found that many of the skulls — which were covered in lime and arranged in a rings, rising like the steps of an amphitheater — were actually those of women and children.

“We were expecting just men, obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you’d think they wouldn’t be going to war,” Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist, told Reuters. “Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli.”

Just a few weeks ago, researchers found the severed necks of 32 children in the same area.

They’ve also uncovered a nearby wooden rectangular platform that is thought to have been the foundation for a sort of a palisade, which they suspect extended 110 feet.

They have no doubt that these disturbing discoveries (the skull tower along with the long wall) are what remains of the structure de Tapia was referring too.

And if that’s the case, they’ll probably be digging up skulls for a long time to come — Since de Tapia said there were more than 10,000.

Luckily for the diggers, some think he was probably exaggerating.

“Odd thing about archeology,” Facebook commenter John Matel wrote about the discovery. “After a couple centuries even the most dreadful crimes are just artifacts.”

Next, read about a new study suggesting that salmonella killed off the majority of Aztecs. Then, learn about seppuku, the ancient and terrible samurai suicide ritual.

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Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.