February 11, 2009

Archaeologists In Mexico Uncover Spanish Conquest-Era Grave

Nearly 50 human skeletons have been found in a mass grave discovered in Mexico City, which archeologists believe may offer clues about the 16th century Spanish conquest, Reuters reported.

Excavators searched for a palace complex in the Tlatelolco area, once a major religious and political center for the ancient Aztec elite, before uncovering the 49 skeletons, all lying face up with their arms crossed.

Salvador Guilliem, in charge of the site for the government's archeology institute, said they were completely taken by surprise when the discovery was announced, adding they never expected to find such a massive funeral complex.

Experts believe the Aztecs built Tlatelolco in the early 1300s along with the nearby capital of the Aztec empire Tenochtitlan, which is now the heart of Mexico City, which the Spanish founded after they conquered the Aztecs in 1521.

Guilliem said the indigenous people buried in the grave likely died in battle against the invading Spanish or fell victim to diseases that wiped out large swaths of the native population in 1545 and 1576.

The Spanish invasion claimed the lives of many Aztecs and millions more died during a four-year epidemic of hemorrhagic fever that began in 1545, killing 80 percent of indigenous Mexicans.

Historians say the burial site seems to have followed Christian customs of the time due to the reverential way the bodies were laid out, making it different from other conquest-era sites, where bodies were randomly thrown into graves.

Guilliem believes the burials were likely ordered by Spanish overlords but carried out by Aztecs since most of the artifacts found around the bodies, such as copper necklaces and bone buttons, are from pre-Hispanic cultures.

Along with 45 young adults in the tomb, the excavators uncovered the remains of two children, a teenager, and an old person wearing a ring that could signify higher status.

At least 50 more bodies are expected to turn up as excavations continue at the massive Tlatelolco complex, home to 67 ancient structures, including massive pyramids.

"The discovery is filling us with more questions than answers at this point," Guilliem said.