Take heart: Bloody execution in the Americas from the Aztecs to the Incas

An Aztec picture
One mode of murder used by the Aztec officials was to slowly cook the prisoner in a bonfire. Image: Pixabay

The great indigenous civilisations that dominated the Americas until the 16th century continue to fascinate and mystify anthropologists, archaeologists, and just about everybody else. The histories of the Incas, the Aztecs, the Maya - to name but a few – fill whole libraries.

In this article, we will take a bitesize look at one particular area of the life of these societies – the death penalty. It is known that many of these cultures performed ritual human sacrifices, but did they execute individuals as a punishment? And if so, what methods did they use?

1. The Incas

Five hundred years ago a mighty empire straddled the Andes mountains along the western corridor of South America. Its 12 million inhabitants occupied territory covering over 2,500 miles north to south. They called their homeland Tahuantinsuyu or Land of the Four Quarters.

This was the Inca Empire.

As well as practising human sacrifice, the Incas also handed out lethal punishments to criminals.

Which crimes in the Inca Empire were punishable by death? What methods of execution did they employ?

Capital crimes in Inca society included murder, witchcraft, public drunkenness (second offence), and insulting the gods. The chief way of dispatching the guilty was to throw them off a cliff, but stoning, clubbing to death, and hanging were also used.

Certain crimes had specific methods of execution, though.

If one official killed an official junior to him, the prisoner was laid face down on the ground and then a huge stone dropped onto their back from a height of several metres. This tended to either kill the guilty party or seriously injure them.

For treason against the state, you were condemned to a torturous death and your bones were made into musical instruments!

If you upset the gods you were burned alive along with your house, and if you committed treason against the emperor you were shut into a cave full of dangerous mammals, poisonous frogs, and venomous snakes. If you were still alive after two days you were pardoned and then compelled to spend your days telling people your story.

If an Inca man committed adultery with one of the emperor’s wives, he was tied naked to a wall and left to die of exposure and starvation.

2. The Aztecs

One of the most famous civilisations of the pre-Columbian Americas is undoubtedly the mighty Aztec Empire, which flourished from about 1400 to 1521 AD in what is now southern Mexico and Central America.

Aztecs accused of crimes were brought before a tribunal of warriors.

If you had committed a grave crime such as murder, you had to answer to the gods. Usually, you were taken to a sacred place such as a temple and throttled or stoned to death.

The Aztecs also had many ways of offing prisoners of war. These were treated as ritual sacrifices, but it could be argued that as they were captives there was a clear punishment element to it as well.

One mode of murder used by the Aztec officials was to slowly cook the prisoner in a bonfire. The condemned would be thrust in and out of the fire repeatedly until they were nearly dead, and then their still-beating heart would be cut out of their chest.

A simpler approach to their grim open-heart surgery on POWs was to lay them on a sacrificial stone, open the chest with an obsidian blade, and then yank out the heart.

Captured warriors were revered by the Aztecs and often given a soldier’s death. Some would be tied to a rock and then given a flattened cudgel to defend themselves against an Aztec fighter (who would be armed with a similar weapon but with a sharpened edge).

The Aztecs also had a firing squad, of sorts. The unfortunate fellow would be tied in a standing position between two posts, resembling a goalkeeper in a wide defensive stance. A white spot would be painted onto their chest where their heart was. Archers would then shoot arrows into every part of the body except the head and heart (which they saved till last).

Female victims had a slightly different experience. They were typically treated as goddesses for a time, before being beheaded.

3. The Iroquois

Next, we go north to what is now Canada and the United States.

For many centuries, the foundation of the legal system of many of the indigenous tribes of North America was blood law or blood revenge.

If a person from one family killed a member of another group, the victim’s kinsmen had a legal right, as well as an obligation, to take their revenge by killing the murderer. It was also generally accepted that that would end the matter, and in most instances it did. In many cases mediation among the clans avoided the retaliatory execution of the offending party: restitution would be paid or some lesser punishment agreed.

But there were many occasions where blood feuds dragged on for years and escalated into long tit-for-tat wars. This is particularly true of the Iroquois.

For centuries the Iroquois people dominated much of the region around the Great Lakes of North America, peaking around the year 1700. The Iroquois would often wage war and bring back live enemy captives at the instigation of mothers who had lost sons at the hands of rival tribes. These bloody skirmishes became known as ‘mourning wars’.

Sometimes the ‘mourning woman’ would permit the captive to be accepted into the tribe. With other enemy tribesmen, it was only their scalp that was brought back. The really unlucky POWs were condemned to a torturous death. These executions were public, protracted, ceremonious affairs.

The bravery and honour of such condemned men often shocked outside observers. Accounts by missionaries tell of doomed detainees showing no signs of pain throughout their brutal ordeals, and in some cases even gleefully cooperating with their captors.

In one incident in 1642, Iroquois fighters subjected enemy prisoners to severe, violent deaths. They first cut off their fingers using fish scales, then forced the men to sing and dance on a platform before dispatching them. One poor fellow endured a whole night of repeated burning with torches over all of his body, before his scalp was sliced off and sand smeared into the wounds; his mangled corpse was then carved up for breakfast for the Iroquois.

4. The Maya

With roots stretching back over 4600 years, the mighty Maya civilisation reached its zenith between 250 and 900 AD. The Maya culture stretched across much of Central America and they are famous for their astronomy, art, and writing system.

They were also a people of war and violence and their legal system could be harsh.

There was a range of capital offences, such as murder, rape, and incest, but manslaughter only required compensation to the family of the dead person.

Crimes committed in the home by strangers were punished by death, the law recognising the vulnerability and sanctity of Mayan homes (which did not have doors).

Methods of execution were commonly either stoning or clubbing to death.

Married women who committed adultery did not suffer death but were publicly shamed, while their partner in the affair would be stoned to death.

Married men were also executed for adultery unless their lover was an unmarried woman.

5. The Moche

The Moche civilisation dominated large swathes of western Peru from around 100 to 800 AD.

Although not a penalty for criminals per se, much of the ritual sacrifice meted out by the Moche people was carried out on captives, so there was, as with the Aztecs, something of a punishment aspect to it.

Master potters and metalworkers, they also built two large stepped pyramids at their capital known as the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun. Inside these pyramids, archaeologists have uncovered murals with graphic depictions of ritual violence and images of terrifying deities like the ‘Decapitator’.

Excavations have revealed evidence that the ritual horror depicted in Moche art actually occurred. At a plaza at the site of the Pyramid of the Moon the remains of seventy men have been uncovered, ritually killed there over the course of five sacrificial events.

Moche artwork, such as that on walls, pots and vessels, depicts warrior-priests in elaborate costumes carrying out gruesome ritualistic violence, such as slitting the throats of the sacrificial victims (often POWs), decapitation, dismemberment, and the drinking of the slain men’s blood.

Many of these men, aged between about 15 and 40, had been ‘defleshed’ after death. Evidence suggests these cleaned skeletons of the butchered men may have been hung up around the pyramid for purposes of intimidation.

Written by:

James Brigden