MEXICO CITY – Archaeologists digging in a ruined pyramid in downtown Mexico City said Tuesday they found a mass grave that may hold the skeletal remains of the Aztec holdouts who fought conquistador Hernan Cortes.
The unusual burial holds the carefully arrayed skeletons of at least 49 adult Indians who were buried in the remains of a pyramid razed by the Spaniards during the 1521 conquest of the Aztec capital.
The pyramid complex, in the city's Tlatelolco square, was the site of the last Indian resistance to the Spaniards during the monthslong battle for the city.
Archaeologist Salvador Guilliem, the leader of the excavation for Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, said the Indians might have been killed during Cortes' war or during one of the uprisings that continued after the conquest.
Guilliem said many burials have been found at the site with the remains of Indians who died during epidemics that swept the Aztec capital in the years after the conquest and killed off much of the Indian population.
But those burials were mostly hurried, haphazard affairs in which remains were jumbled together in pits regardless of age or gender.
The burial reported Tuesday is different. The dead had many of the characteristics of warriors: All but four were young men, most were tall and several showed broken bones that had mended.
The men also were carefully buried Christian-style, lying on their backs with arms crossed over their chests, though many appear to have been wrapped up in large maguey cactus leaves, rather than placed in European coffins.
The mass grave contained evidence of an Aztec-like ritual in which offerings such as incense and animals were set alight in an incense burner, but Spanish elements including buttons and a bit of glass also were present.
Susan Gillespie, an archaeologist at the University of Florida, said the grave was unusual, both because it was unlikely the Spanish would have bothered with such careful burial of Aztec warriors, and because the Indians themselves would have been more likely to cremate any honored dead.
But Gillespie, who was not involved in the excavation, also noted that little is known about the period immediately following the fall of the city, when Cortes razed most pyramids and temples, then abandoned the largely destroyed metropolis. He lived on the city's outskirts before returning to rebuild a Spanish-style city on the ruins.
It may have been in that interim period after Cortes left that the Aztecs returned to bury their dead, Guilliem said.
Gillespie agreed the burials could be those of disease victims or rebellious Indians from later years, rather than warriors who fell in the 1521 battle, and said more research was needed, such as a skeletal analysis to show cause of death.
Another possibility, she said, was that the men could have been held by the Spanish for some time and killed later. That was the fate that befell the leader of the Aztec resistance, emperor Cuauhtemoc.