The forgotten pre-Hispanic weapons in Mexico and why they did not cause death

The weapons made by the pre-Hispanic peoples of Mesoamerica, most of which were created with materials of organic origin, were not intended to kill their opponents in war.

The forgotten pre-Hispanic weapons in Mexico and why they did not cause death
Facsimile of prehispanic weapons. Photographer: Casasola

Created mostly with materials of organic origin, the weapons produced by the pre-Hispanic peoples of Mesoamerica were not intended to kill opponents in war, but to make them impossible, to capture them alive for later sacrifice in ritual acts. This has been revealed by a series of studies on the physical and technical characteristics as well as diverse recreations of the manufacture of pre-Hispanic weaponry, whose results have allowed inferring that they are non-lethal artifacts, which only generated fractures or wounds that made enemies impossible.

This is a research in the field of Experimental Archaeology, where in addition to testing the efficiency of this type of weapon, through the sum of historical data and archaeological findings, as well as technological tests, it has been possible to reproduce the processes of elaboration of these warlike artifacts, as they were made in pre-Columbian times.

Shapes, weights, sizes, and types of injuries caused by pre-Hispanic weapons are some of the aspects that have been determined from the recreation of the manufacture of this type of war instrument, which was a key element for the development and territorial expansion of ancient civilizations such as the Maya, Teotihuacan or Mexica.

Most of the implements for military use were made mainly of wood, lithic and bone, and were used to deliver blunt or short sharp blows that caused multiple fractures. Among the objects that generated this type of damage were the mallets with spheroidal heads, the defensive stick, and the macuahuitl (wooden sword with flint or obsidian blades), which were very maneuverable weapons that allowed to direct with precision and control the force with which the blow was delivered, although their effectiveness also depended on the skill of the user.

In the case of the defensive stick or conejero, -which consisted of a curved piece of flat, polished wood, with bands on its surface that allowed it to be held in place-, tests were carried out on a corpse and it was found that it was a short blunt weapon, which caused fractures and split the muscles and bones into two parts as if it were a knife.

In the pre-Hispanic complex of Atetelco, in the Archaeological Zone of Teotihuacan, where there are a series of murals in situ, which show the military discourse that prevailed in this ancient city. In the painting of the portico 3 of the so-called White Patio, in Atetelco, is represented a character that has been associated with the Lord of the Dawn or Tlaloc B, who in one hand carries a defensive stick with a series of moorings, in an attitude of sacrificing a bird.

This site that since 1945 has been explored by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), also in that same portico and the denominated 1, is observed the representation of warriors dressed in suits of coyote and eagle, who carry the artifact known as propulsor or atlatl, that was one of the utensils of greater use for the offensive attack and that served to throw darts of the obsidian tip or polished bone.

This was one of the ancient weapons that did have lethal purposes, which consisted of a flat and carved stick, in the shape of an inverted "T", which in its handle had two holes in which the fingers were introduced. At the other end, it had a hook in which the darts were placed for their projection as if it were a catapult.

According to the physical tests it has been defined that the darts expelled with this artifact, reach a speed that oscillates between 60 and 80 kilometers per hour, and a distance range of around 40 meters, although this depends on the strength of the arm and the size of the propellant.

Besides weapons for military use, they were also manufactured for ceremonial purposes. This can be determined because according to the chronicles of the sixteenth century and the few examples that are preserved in museums, because they were artifacts with finer finishes, particular shapes, and decorated.

Most of them were not used daily because they were not practical, and were used in ceremonies for the sacrifice of war captives, as is the case of the knives that are also very common in the mural paintings of Teotihuacan, and that was used to extract the heart.

Among the obstacles that the development of this experimental research has had to overcome, it stands out the fact that few examples of this type of war artifacts have reached our days, because they were generally created with organic materials, except for those made with lithic.

Unfortunately, in the Central Altiplano, the PH of the soil is very acidic and does not allow the conservation of materials of natural origin. For the reproduction of this type of war artifact, historic data and the elements provided by archaeological materials, such as ceramics and mural paintings with allusive representations, have been used. Likewise, ethnographic elements are used, through the observation of how indigenous groups currently manufacture their weapons for hunting.

The creation of this type of weaponry has been done as close as possible to pre-Hispanic techniques, and with materials offered by the environment. An example is the case of Teotihuacan, where obsidian, flint, and flint are abundant, allowing the creation of weapons and cutting tools.

Finally, the use of experimental archaeology, in addition to allowing the recreation and specification of morphological characteristics, in this case of weapons, has contributed to proving or disproving historical data, as well as to approach aspects of the daily life of pre-Hispanic man and how these ancient cultures coexisted.

Source: INAH