Cremation, a practice of an elite of Mexica rulers and priests


The exhaustive investigations carried out in the archaeological zone of the Templo Mayor, since the discovery of the monolith of Coyolxauhqui, on February 21, 1978, have allowed determining that the funeral rituals carried out in pre-Hispanic times in that sacred precinct of ancient Tenochtitlan, were related to the most important characters of the Mexica elite, such as rulers and priests.

This is what archaeologist Ximena Chávez Balderas refers to in her book Funerary Rituals in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, in which she offers an extensive analysis of the burials and offerings found at the site, including cremated bone remains that allow for affirming that this practice was exclusive to individuals of high hierarchy or social status.

The recovery of 121 offerings excavated to date, including seven funerary contexts located in the area known as the shrine to Huitzilopochtli, the main deity of the Mexica, has allowed the development of a series of interdisciplinary studies to determine the types of funeral rituals that used to take place at the site and to talk about the probable identity of the individuals.

In these burials, the funerary treatment was cremation, whose remains deposited in urns of unparalleled workmanship indicate that they were dignitaries. Despite the partial destruction of the bones exposed to fire, they represent a valuable source of information to determine the sex, age, and bone pathologies of the individuals at death, as well as aspects related to funeral rituals and the hierarchy of the deceased.

According to historical sources, it was generally thought that cremation was performed on individuals who died of old age or illness, however, the systematic analysis of the contexts, funerary offerings, and their location, allow us to determine that cremation was destined to the characters of higher status, because it was also an expensive treatment that should not be used for any person.

Proof of this are the seven tombs that were found in the early eighties, all with burned skeletal remains and found in the middle of the shrine to Huitzilopochtli, a space that was intended exclusively for the deposit of the mortal remains of the tlatoanis or rulers, their relatives or priests.

The seven funerary sepulchers that present these particularities correspond to the construction stages II (1375 - 1427 A.D.) and IVb (1469 - 1481 A.D.) of the Great Temple, called offerings 3, 10, 14, 34, 37, 39, and 44, which were excavated between 1978 and 1980, after the discovery of the monolith of the goddess Coyolxauhqui and the creation of the Great Temple Project.

In spite of the extreme fragmentation and the mixture of human and fauna bones, as well as the state of cremation of the bone material, the studies carried out together with the consultation of historical sources, allowed deducing some hypotheses about the possible identity of the buried people.

According to osteological analysis, historical data, and the archaeological record, it could be affirmed that two of the individuals buried in the space dedicated to Huitzilopochtli occupied the top of the Mexica social pyramid, that is, they belonged to the highest political and religious sphere.

In Chronicle X, Fray Diego Durán indicates that the remains of the rulers of Tenochtitlan were buried at "the feet of Huitzilopochtli", that is, under the image of the god, which was located in the shrine of Huey Teocalli or dwelling of the deity of war.

According to the chronology established by archaeologist Matos Moctezuma, the rulers corresponding to Stage II of the Great Temple are Acamapichtli (1375 -1395); Huitzilíhuitl (1396 - 1417), and Chimalpopoca (1417 - 1427).

From the analysis it was determined that one of the individuals whose remains were deposited in offerings 34 and 39, was between 21 and 24 years old at the time of death, so it does not correspond to either of the first two Mexica rulers, because the chronicles indicate that Acamapichtli must have died between 40 and 60 years old, while Huitzilíhuitl at 30 or 40.

Perhaps it would correspond to Chimalpopoca, however, in the sources, there are many contradictions because some say that this ruler assumed the power when he was only ten years old and died very young, while others refer that he was murdered and that at the moment of his death he even already had an adult son.

These different versions of the facts do not allow to establish the precise age in which this tlatoani died, and therefore it cannot be assured that the remains studied correspond to Chimalpopoca, it is only a hypothesis, but it can be inferred that he was a character of the Mexica elite.

On the other hand, it was specified that offerings 37 and 44 also contained the remains of the same individual, which were discarded to correspond to a ruler due to the small quantity and quality of associated funerary objects. It is probable that it was a supreme priest or a member of the royal family.

Regarding the other three funerary urns (3, 10, 14) found in Stage IVb, the archaeologist indicates in her work that at first it was assumed that they were the remains of Motecuhzoma I, according to the presence of a date on the tombstone that corresponds to the year in which this Mexica ruler passed away: 1469 AD.

From the osteological and contextual analyses, it was determined that the offerings correspond to three different individuals, which is why it was ruled out that these were the remains of Motecuhzoma I. One of the closest hypotheses to the identity of these characters is that they were the brothers of this dignitary.

During the reign of Motecuhzoma I (1440 - 1469 A.D.), there were several wars against the Chalco people, and in one of them, they killed precisely three brothers of this tlatoani, whose bodies were taken to Tenochtitlan, the place where they were buried.

The rest of the hundred of offerings found in the Great Temple do not present the particularities of the urns studied, since they show signs of sacrifice and have been located in lower areas of the Great Temple.

This is related to the symbolism represented by the Templo Mayor and the myth of Coyolxauhqui, which refers that Coatlicue, her mother, was sweeping and found a feather that she kept in her womb and realized she was pregnant, then when her daughter, Coyolxauhqui and her brothers the 400 stars tried to kill her and a fight ensued. Huitzilopochtli is born armed on the hill Coatépec and kills his sister who falls from the top and is dismembered on the ground.

The Templo Mayor reproduces precisely this scheme, where Huitzilopochtli, the victor, is located at the top and Coyolxauhqui with the vanquished at the bottom. This is consistent with the funerary contexts, because the tombs of the dignitaries have been found above and in the lower part or platform of the building, the sacrificed.

Source: Published by INAH, Rituales Funerarios en el Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlan, (Colección Premios INAH), is divided into four chapters that include photographs and diagrams, as well as an appendix with data from the neurotronic activation analysis, quantification, and description of the ritual objects and results of the osteological studies.