Sacrifice city

A new archaeological discovery testifies to the monumental scale of human sacrifice in the Aztec capital

For the Aztecs, human sacrifice was key to the health of the world. Recent finds show that a vast rack of skulls (reconstruction below) stood at the heart of their capital, Tenochtitlan.

map of modern Mexico City urban area of modern Mexico City Lakes and settlements in 16th-century Mexico City

Modern Mexico City

Urban area

Sierra Nevada

Iztaccihuatl volcano

Sierra Chichinautzin

Aztec-era Mexico City

Lake Xaltocan

Lake Texcoco

Lake Xochimilco


Hidden city

While excavating in downtown Mexico City, archaeologists at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History made the most significant discovery in decades about the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan: The remains of a rack and a tower of skulls belonging to victims of human sacrifice.

The Mexica

The Mexica, the political leaders of the larger cultural group known today as the Aztec, founded Tenochtitlan in 1325. They ruled until the Spanish conquered their city in 1521.

The island capital of Tenochtitlan

The Mexica built their capital city on an island in the now-drained Lake Texcoco. At its apex, the city had a population of about 250,000 and was the seat of an empire that stretched to southern Mexico. The temple complex in the middle of the island was the political and religious heart of the city state.

Templo Mayor

Most sacrifices in Tenochtitlan were performed in public at the top of the Templo Mayor. The sacrifices played a vital role in the Mexica’s cosmology, and may have also helped the young empire control conquered populations.


The Mexica expertly decapitated victims and carved standardized holes in the sides of their skulls so they could be mounted onto the posts of a rack called the tzompantli, which held thousands of skulls.

Two towers

Built from skulls and mortar, towers at least 1.7 meters tall and likely taller flanked the tzompantli. These were built in phases, with skulls on the outer rings facing outward, and those on the inner rings facing inward. The public display of thousands of skulls served as a reminder of the Mexica's power, and of the continuation of the cycle of life.