Planet Earth

Grim Figurines

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Teotihuacán, the first metropolis in the Western Hemisphere, lies about 25 miles from Mexico City. Little is known of its mysterious founders, who predate the better known Aztec and Maya. While digging there, archeologist Kim Goldsmith discovered six unusual clay figurines--five unclothed pregnant women and one man, each lying faceup on a table. The fragmented figurines were missing heads and limbs; the table in each case supported only the torso. I thought, ‘That looks a lot like the way they sacrificed people in other parts of Mesoamerica,’ says Goldsmith, a graduate student at the University of California at Riverside. Ritual heart sacrifice in pre-Hispanic Central America is well documented in historical writings and in pictures similar to the copy of what may be an Aztec illustration shown here. The figurines, 1,200 to 1,600 years old, predate the Aztec ascendancy by at least 600 years and bear witness to the ancient roots of a grim ritual. A drawing by a colleague of Goldsmith’s (top) fills in the missing parts of one figurine. The figurines of pregnant women are evidence of another grisly practice--fetal sacrifice. Indeed, burials of up to ten fetuses have been found near altars and stairways at Teotihuacán. Goldsmith suggests that the figurines may have served as a symbolic offering on somebody’s altar, although she says it’s not something I’d want in my house.

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