Over 500 years ago, a young woman was buried in the holiest temple of the ancient Aztec city Tenochtitlan. She was surely an elite member of her society, based on the location of her grave. But the way she was buried doesn't fit with anything anthropologists know about Aztec society. Her body, discovered recently 15 feet below what is today Mexico City's Templo Mayor, was surrounded by a heap of 1,789 human bones, along with a holy tree and other offerings.

The bones were jumbled up into piles, as if they had been disinterred from elsewhere and then reburied with the mystery woman.


According to the AP:

The National Institute of Anthropology and History said the find was the first of its kind, noting the Aztecs were not known to use mass sacrifice or the reburial of bones for the interment of a member of the ruling class.

University of Florida archaeologist Susan Gillespie, who was not involved in the project, called the find "unprecedented for the Aztec culture".

She said on Tuesday that when the Mayas interred sacrifice victims with royal burials, but they were usually found as complete bodies. And, except for special circumstances, the Aztecs, unlike other pre-Hispanic cultures, usually cremated members of the elite during their rule from 1325 to the Spanish conquest in 1521.

"Although the bodies of sacrificial victims have been found in burials of elite persons in Mesoamerica going back to at least the preclassic period, funerary deposits for Aztec elites have only rarely been encountered," said Gillespie.


Anthropologists believe the woman was buried between 1481-1486, at a time when her grave would have been part of the temple grounds, where the most sacred religious rituals were conducted. Why was she buried with all those bodies? Were they sacrifices?

The answers aren't clear, partly because this finding changes what we know about Aztec culture. Generally elites of the Aztec were cremated, so this burial must have been very unusual. Gillespie also suggested to the AP that the holy tree found with the body might have been part of a temporary installation at the temple, perhaps for just a few decades out of the centuries that the area was used for worship. Is it possible that this woman was part of a short-lived religious subculture? Or maybe she was just part of a hitherto-unknown ritual.

Read more about the discovery via The Guardian and Mexico's National Institute of History and Anthropology (in Spanish).