Mexican scientists have detailed three methods of opening the chest that the priests of Mesoamerica used to cut out the heart in human sacrifice. In an article published in Current Anthropology, it is said that the Aztecs and Mayans used stone knives to cut the body across the diaphragm, between the ribs, or cut the sternum in two. Heart and blood were for the gods.
Ritual human sacrifices for the prosperity of society were spread throughout the world: in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt and India. In Mesoamerica (roughly corresponding to present-day Central America), the rite of carving out the heart was widespread, evidence of which dates back to at least the first millennium BC. The rituals were led by the elites, and in addition to sacred purposes, they were also used for entertainment or intimidation of the public. We are not completely clear about the ritual procedures and the role of cutting out the heart. Scientists from different fields, from historians to forensic experts, unite their efforts to understand the sacred meaning, procedure, tools and other details of sacrificial rituals.
Image of a heart from the Aztec Codex Feyervary-Mayer
Vera Tiesler of the Autonomous University of Yucatan and Guilhem Olivier of the National Autonomous University of Mexico studied the anatomical position of the chest openings, altars and instruments for cutting out the heart. To do this, they examined 201 scenes of ritual sacrifice in Mesoamerican manuscripts and testimonies of the colonialists. The descriptions were matched with skeletons found in the respective areas.
It turned out that the chest was cut with stone knives in three main ways. The first is across the body under the ribs, along the diaphragm. Apparently, this method was used by the Aztecs during mass sacrifices. The victim was laid with his back on a large stone, his hands and head were pressed to the ground by four assistant priests. A specially trained person stuck a knife into the middle of the body and made a cross-cut, and then removed the heart from under the ribs with his hand or with a sickle knife.
The position of the victim when cutting out the heart in the first way
Heart stabbed by a bent knife in the priest's hand
With this method of opening the chest, there was no need to cut the ribs, and there are no traces of the operation on the bones of people killed in this way. Only in one skeleton from a burial in the Mexican Michoacan was evidence of a heart cut out: two scratches on the sternum. More often there are traces of a knife with which the heart was taken out: on the inner surface of the ribs and vertebrae.
b: Traces of opening the chest on the sternum; a, c: Traces of removal of the heart with a knife on the ribs and vertebrae
The second way of thoractomy (opening the chest) is an incision between the ribs. To sacrifice in this way, a person had to kneel or sit on a bench in front of the priest. A sharp stone knife stabbed between the fourth and fifth left ribs and cut through a gap. Then the bones were pulled apart with effort to expose the heart. The procedure was restored from a skeleton that was found during excavations of traces of the Mayan Yaksun culture. The victim's head is folded and pressed with the back of the head against the parted ribs. Such a compact position was probably a reference to the rituals of Mayan hunters: they would fold the carcass of prey and tie it to their backs to take home.
The skeleton of the victim, whose heart was cut out in the second way (the head is completed)
The position of the victim when cutting out the heart in the second way
Nahua (the people of Mesoamerica, to which the Aztecs belonged) in the late period used the third method of cutting out the heart. They cut the sternum across, from nipple to nipple, so that the beating heart literally popped out of the chest. Breasts cut in half were found in large numbers in various burials in Mesoamerica. The rest of the bones of the skeletons were also divided into parts, and scientists suggest that after the operation, the body of the victim was divided into pieces and skinned.
a: Skeleton of the victim whose heart was cut out in the third way; b: photograph of the sternum cut in two
Evidence of the third method of cutting the breast is found in the images of the Aztec deity Ship-Totek and in the descriptions of the holidays dedicated to this god. During the holiday sacrifices, the priests put on the skin of the killed people and danced along with the warriors.
a: Sipe Totec sculpture, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; b: depiction of the feast of Sipe Totek and the sacrifices
The sacrifices were made to feed the gods. The hearts, blood and internal organs of the victims were offered to higher entities as food to appease them.
In addition to lofty goals, sacrifices were pursued and more practical. For example, brutal rituals helped elites maintain their high status and social inequality.