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Aztec Massacre

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Director  Karen Kelly
Country  United States
Genre  History documentary
Language  English
Aztec Massacre Aztec Massacre Full Episode Secrets of the Dead PBS
Release date  23 April 2008 (2008-04-23) (Video release: May 27, 2008)

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Aztec Massacre is a 2008 television documentary produced by Thirteen/WNET New York and ITVS International and broadcast as part of PBS's Secrets of the Dead series. It presents the grisly discovery of more than 400 mutilated skeletons at the Aztec site of Zultapec, Mexico. It purports to show that the 500-year-old discovery “paints a new picture of the violent relations between the Aztecs and the Conquistadors and rewrites much of what we thought we knew about the Aztec civilization”. The accuracy of many of the program's assertions, however, has been questioned.


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Aztec Massacre presents a mix of interviews, historical re-enactments and computer-generated images woven together by a narrator. It follows the travels and investigations of “outside expert” Elizabeth Baquedano and interviews archeologists, anthropologists, history and forensics experts and other scientists. Baquedano visits archives, archeological sites and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico City. She talks to Enrique Martinez (site excavator), Magali Civera (an osteologist), Carmen Aguilera (a scholar and authority on the Florentine Codex), and Adrian Locke (Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts in London).

The documentary centers on Martinez and his archaeological excavations at Zultepec, about 60 miles from Mexico City. A mass Aztec grave of at least 400 bodies had remained undisturbed there for around 500 years until archeologists began exploring the site. At least 40 of the bodies were discovered to be European and 10 of those were females. The mass grave contained dismembered bodies with vertebra, pelvic and femur bones missing from the skeletons. All the bodies show evidence of ritual killing, where the chest was opened up with a knife and the bodies were mutilated. More than two-dozen skulls are pierced through the temples, suggesting they were hung as trophies.

The first Spanish in Mexico were led by Hernán Cortés and the Aztecs were ruled by the powerful Moctezuma II. The documentary re-enacts how the Aztecs, although highly uncertain as to how to respond, believed Cortes was fulfilling an ancient prophecy as a returning god when he abruptly appeared in 1519. They gave him precious gifts and entertained the Spanish lavishly. Cortés initially had an all-male crew, but a second party, following him out of Cuba, had women with them, which helps date the mass grave. In 1520, this caravan of Spanish soldiers — among them women, children, slaves and local followers — was abandoned by Cortés, as he rushed back to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City) to put down a native uprising. The findings at Zultepec, plus evidence in ancient documents (Aztec codices depicting ritualistic displays of human sacrifice), show that the abandoned Spanish were captured and offered to the Aztec gods, along with natives from local tribes who were helping the Spanish against their Aztec masters. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice and the documentary narrates how Cortés wrote about how the victim's chest was opened while they were alive and their still beating heart offered as sacrifices. Cannibalism followed.

The film indicates that, because history is "written by the victors", there is an impression that the Aztecs simply let the Spanish take them over without a fight. The new evidence suggests instead that they fought hard to resist conquest.


The film has been criticized for both contextual misrepresentations and factual errors.

Contextual distortions

  • Critics contend that the program presents long-known facts as sensational, newly discovered information. Martínez first published the sacrificial remains in 1993 and published his identification of some of them as Spaniards in 2003. Aztec ritual sacrifice, cannibalism and the reasons they were performed were not breaking news in 2008. Baquedano, however, is presented as uncovering shocking new insights. She is shown, for example, "discovering" an illustration in Bernardino de Sahagún's Florentine Codex (1545–1590) and thus figuring out the meaning of the Zultepec finds. But the illustration (a well-published figure showing Spaniards and horses on a skull rack, very familiar to Aztec scholars and students), was well-known long before the Zultepec discoveries. (The presence of sacrificed European women at Zultepec, however, represents an authentic new discovery.)
  • The film repeatedly references, as it main theme, a supposed long-standing misconception that the Aztecs put up little resistance to their conquest by the Spaniards. This is the notion that the new research is supposed to have "turned on its head". But it is not clear who is supposed to have held this misconception or when, since ample evidence from historical accounts has always depicted an intense and bloody war of conquest that went on for nearly two years, and in which both Aztecs and Spanish suffered heavy casualties. Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote, in his stirring The True History of the Conquest of New Spain (mid-1550s-1568), a detailed description of the many fierce battles fought with the Aztecs during the course of the conquest. Cortes’ original letters also provide ample evidence of the same events. The eventual capture of Tenochtitlan was a murderous affair featuring block by block fighting and heavy losses on both sides. During this fighting, Spanish soldiers were captured, and first hand accounts are known from Spanish participants who saw their captured comrades being sacrificed. (See, for example, La Noche Triste.) The idea that Aztec scholars have ever believed anything else is false. (The idea that historians distorted the story of the conquest by omitting the fierce resistance to the Spanish put up by the Aztecs could be interpreted as an example of the "Black Legend".)
  • The defeat of the Aztecs and the collapse of their empire, or alliance, are presented without any reference to the overwhelming scientific evidence that European diseases – most notably smallpox — preceded Cortez's trip to the Aztec capital. Disease was what rendered the Aztecs vulnerable to attack by such a small troop of Spanish mercenaries. Aztec resistance collapsed only after they began dying in large numbers from smallpox.
  • The film postulates that the skeletonized victims uncovered at Zultepec were remnants of the 1520 Pánfilo de Narváez expedition sent to Mexico by the Governor of Cuba to subdue and arrest Cortez. (The film does not mention Narváez by name.) There are known, however, to have been other, later groups of Spaniards landing at Veracruz and joining Cortes in his siege of Tenochtitlan. These are not mentioned in the film and there is no reason the remains could not be from one of these.
  • The soundtrack of the film is dominated by son and meringue music. As these originate in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, respectively, they introduce another discordant element into a film about Mexico and Spain.
  • Factual errors

  • In the film, Cortez is said to have "conquered Cuba" prior to coming to Mexico. The conquest of Cuba was accomplished by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, whom Cortez served as an aide.
  • The highly photogenic site of Teotihuacan — about 30 miles to the northeast of present-day Mexico City — is presented in the film as "the center for Aztec sacrifice". But it is well established that Teotihuacan was not an Aztec city at all, predating the Aztecs by hundreds of years. It had been abandoned for centuries when the Aztecs first arrived in the Valley of Mexico. Evidence of human sacrifice has been found there, but archeologists have not identified what group or culture was responsible. In the film, Baquedano stands in the center of the site's "Avenue of the Dead" discussing Aztec sacrifice, leaving the distinctly false impression that it happened there. (The pyramids there were not each dedicated to a particular god in the Aztec pantheon, as the narrator says. It is not yet clear what purpose most of those pyramids served for their non-Aztec builders.)
  • The narrator refers to a site at Tenochtitlan — the Aztec capital — as the "Templo Mejor" ("better temple"), rather than the correct "Templo Mayor" ("main temple").
  • The film repeatedly refers to the idea that the Spanish Conquistadors were seen as gods by the Aztecs, who for that reason (and others) put up little resistance to their conquest. But this material — the "Return of Quetzalcoatl" myth — is controversial and many consider it discredited. There are original, native sources mentioning omens of this kind, but these are post-1519. And even these suggest some confusion as to whether Moctezuma thought the Spanish were gods, and if so, which ones. (The regalia sent to Cortes by Moctzuma included that of Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, and Huitzilopochtli, so it's not known which deity, if any, might have been involved). The legend, which originated in a 1552 document in Spain written by Francisco López de Gómara, may have been invented to justify the conquest (there are Christian elements, possibly the influence of the Spanish on the narrative) and to explain the Spanish victory (by blaming Moctezuma and his foolishness for destroying the Aztec state).
  • The film states that Cortez heard of the death of Moctezuma on his way back to Tenochtitlan after defeating Narvaez. But all historical accounts agree that Moctezuma was still alive when Cortez returned to Tenochtitlan, although there is uncertainty about the circumstances of Moctezuma's subsequent death.
  • References

    Aztec Massacre Wikipedia