Ancient human skull masks left as offerings at an Aztec temple may have been crafted from the bones of defeated warriors and slain members of the nobility.
Found alongside 30 decapitated skulls at the site of the Templo Mayor in Mexico, the eight morbid masks have puzzled archaeologists since their discovery, with little known about who or where they came from.
Through new archaeological studies, researchers have now been able to determine that the two groups of victims came from different geographic origins and social status, solving a mystery that’s spanned more than three decades.
The artefacts found at the Templo Mayor are thought to have been buried with individuals of high social status, the researchers explain in the new study, published to the journal Current Anthropology.
The masks, along with the 30 unmodified skulls, date back to the reign of emperor Axayacatl (AD 1468–1481).
Decorative human skull masks were made to be worn over the face or as a part of a headdress, and left as offerings to the deceased.
Parts of the bone were removed, and the skulls were dyed and modified, some with blades jutting from the nasal cavities and shell or pyrite inlays in the eye sockets.
These offerings were found near the temple Huitzilopochtli, which the researchers say suggests the bones came from warriors who had been captured and sacrificed.
The researchers, led by Corey Ragsdale of the University of Montana, tested various techniques to reveal which tools would have been used in the manufacturing process.
They compared the cut marks and drill holes seen in the masks with experimental replicas made on human bone in the Experimental Archaeology Workshop at the Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City.
With these techniques, they determined that the masks were likely produced locally at the Templo Mayor.
They also looked at age, sex, and pathological conditions of the remains to understand the differences between the individuals used to create masks, and those that were unmodified offerings.
Then, they analysed dental traits to trace the geographic origin and population affinity of the victims, comparing them with patterns seen in the surrounding areas.
Through these analyses, the researchers found major differences between the two types of offerings.
The skull masks were all created from adult males, between the ages of 30 and 45.
There was no evidence found of dental disease or nutritional stress, and the researchers say they align with patterns seen among individuals of high status and those associated with war.
The team says they may have been warriors captured or defeated during conquest, or even members of the nobility executed in towns that sided against the emperor.
One may even have been of the defeated king of Tollocan, the researchers say.
These people likely originated from numerous locations, including Toluca Valley, West Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and the Valley of Mexico.
The unmodified skulls, however, came from both males and females at varying stages of adulthood, the researchers found.
They had higher amounts of dental wear and disease along with nutritional stress, and were likely of low social status.
The researchers suggest they may have been slaves or low level fighters who participated in ‘flower wars.’
‘Although all the offerings were associated with the temple of Huitzilopochtli, it appears that elaborate cultural treatment and ornamental display were reserved for elite warriors defeated by the Aztecs in battle,’ the authors wrote.
Along with the skeletal remains found at the Templo mayor, researchers over the years have also found masks made of precious stones, along with alligator skulls, sawfish, fine ceramics, stone blades, and statues.
The Templo Mayor was once a major political and religious center in the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlán.
This city represented a crucial part of the Aztec Triple Alliance, and was situated on a small island on the southwest part of Lake Texcoco.
The lake lies in the Valley of Mexico, where Mexico City is now located.