Performers dressed as Aztecs (file image)
Performers dressed as Aztecs dance around the Sun Pyramid at the Teotihuacan site in Mexico.

Brutal Aztec pandemic claim sacrifices the truth

AAP FactCheck February 25, 2022

The ancient Aztecs sacrificed their leaders to the gods to avert famines and pandemics.


False. Experts say there is no evidence of Aztecs killing rulers to avoid such disasters.

While protesters against vaccination mandates and COVID-19 restrictions have taken to the streets in Australia and other countries, a viral social media post takes a trip back in time to claim the Aztecs killed their leaders to ward off pandemics.

The Facebook meme posted in April 2021 and recently reshared by Australian users claims “the tribes of the ancient Aztecs sacrificed their leaders to the gods in case of famine or pandemic.”

In what appears to be an allusion to the COVID-19 pandemic and related anti-government protests, the meme author adds: “I’m not hinting at anything, just a beautiful custom.”

The post is illustrated with a piece of art similar to those found in the Codex Laud, an Aztec-era manuscript

However, the meme’s claim is false. Historians say human sacrifice was a big part of Aztec life, but there is no evidence they killed leaders in attempts to stop or prevent disasters.

“They absolutely never sacrificed their own leaders, not for any reason,” Camilla Townsend, distinguished professor of history at Rutgers University and author of an award-winning history of the Aztecs, told AAP FactCheck in an email.

The Aztecs, who once ruled a large part of modern-day Mexico, partially used human sacrifice as a “terror tactic” involving enemy prisoners of war, Prof Townsend said.

“They sacrificed dozens of prisoners of war, trying (quite successfully) to make the point that people should stop fighting them and join the empire peacefully.”

Frances Berdan, a professor emerita of anthropology at California State University San Bernardino, who has written and edited several books on Aztec society, agreed the meme’s claim is incorrect.

“As far as I know, there are no recorded instances of Aztec rulers being sacrificed to the gods for any reason,” Prof Berdan said in an email to AAP FactCheck.

While it is possible epidemics took place in Aztec society before European contact, major pandemics in South and Central America were documented as nearly wiping out entire societies during colonisation. There are estimates up to 80 per cent of the population in Mexico perished in the 16th century due to the impacts of multiple diseases, war and famine.

However, Prof Berdan said Aztec society worked to improve conditions for the population during famines and droughts, rather than executing its rulers.

“The people did experience droughts, frosts, floods, earthquakes, and rodent/insect infestations, some of which led to famine. When the worst of these occurred (such as the multi-year drought in the 1450s), the Aztec (Mexica) ruler’s obligation was to distribute as much food as possible from his stores, and he did.”

Sometimes a figurehead representing the gods – not the actual Aztec leaders – would be sacrificed during cultural festivals, while experts have also said there are examples of children being sacrificed as offerings to the gods during events such as droughts.

Aztec historian Caroline Dodds Pennock, author of Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture, wrote in a 2012 article for Historical Social Research that a person called the “ixiptlatl” would impersonate a god before their ritual sacrifice.

The ixiptlatl “roamed freely throughout the city for a year before his death,” Dr Pennock wrote. “No one could refuse the ixiptlaltl’s request and he lived richly and was attended by servants and multiple wives” before he ascended the temple and chose the moment of his death (pages 288-289).

Other fact-checks have also debunked the meme’s claim, as seen here, here and here.

The Verdict

Historians say there is no basis to the claim the Aztecs sacrificed their leaders to the gods in times of famine or pandemics. Aztec sacrifices were more typically prisoners of war or based around religious festivals, but such events did not involve the death of their rulers.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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