Even when there is a general acknowledgement of the activities of the Aztec community, it has been difficult to trace a comprehensible source of data that could be used to thoroughly examine the account of the human sacrifices made by these people in their entirety. One of the most famous works into the history of the human sacrifices in the Aztec community is that by Harner, (Harner, M. (1977), who argues that the community used human sacrifice to supplement their ecological and evolutionary needs.
Even then, the work of Harner has been greatly criticized by a couple of scholars who think that the data that is available on the Aztec community is not sufficient for such a conclusion to be relied upon. Harner has been accused of over generalization of facts, so that his work has been thought of as copying the ‘if one dog has spots then they all have spots’ kind of logic (Harner, 1977). The credibility of the available data on the Aztecs has for a long time now become a matter of contention, with the concern that the sources of this data, pulled from letters written by individuals, and colonial records of the time, could have a motive to only paint the community in a certain picture (Harner, 1977), and therefore run the risk of exposing those analyzing them to skewed conclusions.
Still, the questions about the ideas that may have motivated the people of Aztec to capture people and use them for religious sacrifices, or to capture them and later feed their meat to the elite classes have become areas of interest for many anthropologists.
The toughest debate about Aztec cannibalism is the motivation and the purpose for which it was maintained. The idea the ritual was used to provide human flesh for nutritional need has been presented as filling the demand left by a population increase, so that the people now required to supplement their diet (Winkelman, 1998). The most popular proponent of this theory is Harner (1977), who claims that Aztec human cannibalism was driven by demographic- ecological factors, which caused the Aztec community to experience shortages in the available protein levels, especially due to the fact that the population kept increasing,
The agricultural conditions were unfavorable, the crops kept failing which led to worse agricultural output, the community did not have any herbivores who they domesticated for the purposes of providing food, the wild game that they relied on kept decreasing, and there was famine and also the fact that they experienced environmental circumscription, due to the pressure of the limited chances for expansion of agriculture in Mexico (Winkelman,1998). This theory therefore does away with the idea that the community involved themselves with human sacrificing in order to cater for their religious needs.
The consumption of human meat in Aztec has been known to have been expansive in some of the classes in the society, more than in others. The elite class was primarily the main consumer of human flesh, though the class system of the Aztecs made it possible for individuals to climb up the class ladder, so that those who became great warriors in battle could also partake of the human flesh, which was an extension of the recognition they got for their prowess ( (Winkelman,1998). This may explain why, even though it is only 25 percent of the population that was allowed to have the meat, the rest 75 percent were actively involved in maintaining the war, seeing that one had the chance to expose his prowess in war, which offered him a chance to be recognized and rewarded with upward mobility, so he could partake of the meal and the glory as the elite class did (De Montellano, 1978). This means that the community had a way to motivate the warriors to keep engaging in war, in pursuit of glory and upward mobility within the class system.
It is clear, however, that the need for human flesh among the Aztecs was supported by engaging with other communities. The Aztecs other communities in war, so that they could capture their victims and use them for their spiritual needs (Winkelman, 1998). It is clear that the capturing of the victims for these rituals was maintained by the rich people, who rewarded the poor with honor when they captured the victims, and therefore the cycle was maintained by the selfish interest of the two groups. Even then, the idea that it is the rich people who ate human flesh, and who rewarded the poor for getting is one of the reasons why many scholars have been wary of this theory.
This is because the lite class had the resources to obtain other kinds of diets, if the need was for nutritional supplements (Winkelman, 1998). In fact, data and has been put forward suggesting that the Aztec community had better sources of meat ,and even though this would at some point been exhausted, they were more likely to seek other means of finding food(Winkelman, 1998). This has been a popular theory among the individuals who disagree with Harner’s theory, and especially those who argue that the credibility of the data that Harner relies on is flawed.
The Aztec community has today, triggered series of studies into the historical cultures of different communities, especially with the intent to understand those that had acquired what looks like strange customs such as that of human sacrifice or human flesh consumption. One of such studies tries to examine the economic value of the consumption of human flesh. Among the data and variables used is the energy cost of catching an returning a captive for immediate festive consumption, the caloric cost of training and maintaining a search and capture team, the cost of fattening the captive for future consumption, the energy cost of maintaining the captive in a pen for future consumption, the energy costs of the building and even the energy cost of allowing the viewing of these individuals in what could perhaps be public viewing pens (Garn, 1979).
These calculations show that the community would end up in a caloric debt, even when the calculations underestimate the energy costs involved in capture and return, and overestimate a value that would be reached from the consumption of the captured person (Garn, 1979). The calculations rule out nutritional need from Aztec’s culture of human consumption (Garn, 1979), seeing that there would have to be a surplus of calories for the culture to be sustainable. The proposition therefore, is that this culture would have been motivated by other needs besides the nutritional need.
Some of the questions raised against Harner’s conclusion are based on the facts that have over time, found his work unreliable. To begin with, Harner assumes that the community needed a nutritional boost, for one, because they lacked herbivores whom they could domesticate, and therefore had a shortage of nutrients that could only be supplemented by people (Montellano, 1978). Harner assumes that the only reliable source of protein is domesticable herbivores, just because this is his normal, fashioned by his American and European dietary knowledge (Montellano, 1978).
Studying the Mexican food, however, shows that it was possible to supplement the diet of the Mexicans without necessarily relying on diary and meat products form domesticated herbivores (Montellano, 1978). The famines that are mentioned in Harner’s work may be too many than what evidence across the years have been known to show, and the fact that the parts that were environmentally endowed could succeed in domesticating plants (Harner, 1977), imply that there could have been better ways to supplement the diet rather than turn to fellow human beings.
The idea that the Aztecs resorted to human cannibalism for nutritional need has always been seen as an extreme one, seeing that there are communities who found themselves in similar or worse agricultural situations, but found better ways to approach their problems. Data shows that this is one of the solutions that the Mexicans actually exercised in response to the food shortages that occurred to their community in the traditional way that food shortages caught up with other communities. Throughout history, groups that have found themselves in a situation of food shortage opt to respond to it though the intensification of their agriculture or the expansion of their lands (Montellano, 1978). Aztec too was not left behind, seeing that the emperors began to invest in hydraulic that helped in the separation of fresh and salt water lagoons, in order for the expansion of the chinampa agriculture (Montellano, 1978). In addition to this, the community was involved in conquests that allowed them to obtain food from other sources (Montellano, 1978), which point to the fact that the Aztecs had better ways of handling the food shortage before engaging in human flesh consumption.
The argument for cannibalism fails to meet the basic explanation for its use as a way to supplement the protein shortage. It has been recoded, the fact that men battled fiercely in battle, and brought home the victims, who were later, in a huge mass, sacrificed to the gods in order to ensure that the future would have sufficient nutritional cover for the people. The idea that this kind of practice was merely for nutritional needs ignores the fact that warriors actually got promoted within the society for what they showed to be prowess in battle. The argument shows its weaknesses when explaining how individuals would choose to go to war, perhaps even die, just so they could claim dietary supplements for their families.
It has been generally agreed, that the Aztec community’s ritual of human sacrifice was primarily based on their religious beliefs. In addition to this, different works have brought it to our attention the fact that the warriors who were involved in battle rewarded with a new status in the society, and this meant that the human sacrifice rituals were not only religious, but also impacted the political organization of the community as well as the social status of the individuals who were involved. Seeing that most of the concern has been placed on deciding whether or not the argument for the dietary needs of the community was responsible for the maintenance of the culture, there has been few studies tearing apart the rest of the social concerns that were involved in the maintenance of the culture.
One of the most well-known arguments for the religious motive for the human sacrifices is the idea that the gods needed it (De Montellano, 1978). While this could be true, there hasn’t been reliable sources to confirm it. Still, it is a weak argument to explain why individuals would go to battle even with the knowledge that they would die, for a cause that would not benefit them individually. However, the religious beliefs led them to believe that they could go to heaven if they died in battle (Winkelman, 1998). Also, upward mobility was hinged on the sole success in war, and why such constructs were actually accepted in the community is still difficult to explain. This has triggered the need to analyze the psychosocial functions of human sacrifice.