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Tzompantli: An ancient skull rack | LDS Tours Cancun

A Tzompantli is a type of wooden rack or palisade, used for the public display of human skulls, typically sacrificial victims or war captives. 

The word Tzompantli is derivated from the Nahuatl language and was used to refer to the skull racks found in many Aztec cities. A large number of these structures have been documented throughout Mesoamerica, and range from Epiclassic through early Post-Classic. 

There are different theories about the meaning and purpose of these edifications. Still, one of the most accepted theory is that the skulls belonged to people who had been sacrificed in rituals. As we know, many Pre-Columbian cultures had a strong belief between their gods and the earth, and probably they believed the best way to honor them and pay tribute to prevent their wrath was through human sacrifice. Many Tzompantli was found in the center of the cities, right where human sacrifices took place. Another popularly accepted theory is that the skulls belonged to enemy soldiers who were captured and later became sacrificial victims to be offered to the gods.

Aztec era

The first and most notorious example of Tzompantli is located in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. An Aztec codex tells the story about the battles between the Spaniards and the Aztecs. In this codex, it is depicted that after Cortes’ expedition was forced to retreat from Tenochtitlan, the people erected a Tzompantli, to display the severed heads of men and even horses, as a way to intimidate the invaders and show themselves as superior. 

Toltec


In the Toltec civilization, we can also find remains of Tzompantli structures displaying multiple rows of stone carved skulls adorning platforms situated in the archaeological site of Tula, Hidalgo. The purpose of this Tzompantli was to exhibit the victims offered as sacrificed.

Mayan


Very close to the Great Ballcourt Game at Chichen Itza are the walls of the Tzompantli, a fascinating structure, where beautifully carved reliefs can be appreciated. This platform is covered with representations of skulls, fleshed warriors, and feathered snakes sculpted in stone. The Mayan people, as well as other cultures in Mesoamerica, considered the cult of the dead as a rite of great importance; it is possible they were the first to build a permanent structure for the exhibition of human skulls.
According to Francisco de Landa, these reliefs represent four different subjects: human sacrifice, eagles eating human hearts, skeletonized warriors with shields and arrows, and the representation of the whole rack itself.

There still is a lot to learn about Tzompantli, since the more we learn and discover, the more we comprehend the traditions of ancient cultures.

Alma’s LDS Tours offers a great variety of tours where you can keep learning more about the history of this and more Mayan culture.
Here is a list of our most popular tours:

  • Sources: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, “Descubren el gran Tzompantli de México-Tenochtitlan”, 20 August 2015, https://inah.gob.mx/