Re: Man-eating myth?

Jeffrey L Baker (
Fri, 19 May 1995 21:45:56 -0700

On 19 May 1995, Bruce D. Scott wrote:

> That the edible remains of many of the Aztec sacrificees found their way to
> the markets and were later consumed is documented by chroniclers who were
> there and saw it with their eyes. Look for earliest-possible translations
> of Sahagun. The accounts are considered "shocking" by the mores of the
> present Western culture, and perhaps for that reason people look for
> arguments against their actual occurrence.

Sahagun is the only person to mention this practice (of human remains
ending up in the market. There are a number of major problems with
the view of Aztec cannibalism espoused by Harner and Harris. First, it
relies upon the most outlandish estimates of the number of captives being
sacrificed, and second, Harris bases his estimate of the amount of
animal protein that is consumed in human societies upon 1960's U.S. and
Inuit diet. The Inuit live in an unusual environment, with minimal plant
sources for most of the year, while the high levels of meat consumption
in the U.S. is also relatively unique and recent. Meat used to be an
elite commodity, but ranchers and advertisers were able to convince
Americans that meat was an important part of the diet.

Returning to the Aztec data, there are a number of contradictions in
the accounts of Aztec society. Writers who discuss cannibalism (or human
sacrifice) all agree that prisoners of war were the primary source of
the victims. There is also general agreement among writers (including
Sahagun) that there was a dramatic increase in the number of slaves
immediately prior to the Spanish Conquest. These slaves, again, are
reputed to be primarily people captured in war (though, a second source
of slaves was people selling themselves or their children into
slavery). Now, if most captives were sacrificed and consumed, where did
this plentiful supply of captives to be turned into slaves come from?
You can't have your slave and eat it too!

Ritual cannibalism probably was present in Aztec society, but the picture
of the Aztecs as utilizing human flesh for daily consumption is clearly
erroneous. We should not forget that shortly after Columbus stumbled
upon the New World, the Pope declared the inhabitants human. This, of
course, prevented the Spanish from using them as slaves (supposedly).
There was an out, however. Anyone who participated in cannibalism
could be turned into a slave. This would have encouraged the exaggeration
of any possible cannibalistic behavior.

Jeff Baker