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Origins of the Skull Offerings of the Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlán
Corey S. Ragsdale, Heather J. H. Edgar, and Emiliano Melgar


The human skeletal offerings at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlán include decapitated skulls, some of them reused as skull masks. Little is known regarding who the individuals used as offerings were or where they came from. It is generally accepted that these individuals were obtained through warfare and that the masks were made locally in Tenochtitlán. Here we investigate these assumptions using methods in experimental archaeology and bioarchaeology. We examined skull masks (n = 8) and unmodified skulls from sacrificial offerings (n = 30). We compared these offerings from Tenochtitlán corresponding to the reign of Axayacatl (AD 1469–1481) with skulls from groups (n = 127) representing military encounters, using nonmetric multidimensional scaling. We also recorded sex, age, and indicators of disease/nutritional deficiency among all individuals. Finally, we used techniques in experimental archaeology to identify the tools employed in the manufacture of the skull masks. Our results show that the individuals represented as skull masks were likely different in social status and geographic origin from the unmodified offerings. Our results also show that the skull masks may have been produced locally at the Templo Mayor, using local cultural techniques. We put forward a new approach to investigating sociopolitical relationships and the treatment of the dead among prehistoric populations.


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