What Was the Role of Children in Pre-Aztec Society?

Precious Feather, Precious Stone:  Child Burials

Babies were greatly loved, coveted, and cared for in Aztec society. When babies were born, they were referred to as “precious necklace, precious feather, precious greenstone, precious bracelet, precious turquoise” (Sahagún, bk. 6:176).  The Aztecs believed that the souls of dead infants did not go to the land of the dead but rather to a separate location in the afterworld, Chichihualcuauhco, where they could be nursed by a tree of breasts while they waited to be reborn.  Thus, when an unweaned infant or child died, it was believed that they only went to heaven temporarily and would be placed again in the womb of a mother.

Sometimes offerings were deposited on top of graves. These small figurines, likely children’s toys, were placed on top of the burial of a child in Structure 1.

At Xaltocan during the Early Postclassic period (A.D. 900-1150), infants and small children were buried in simple graves underneath house floors and often excavated into adobe walls.   At this time, only infants and children under four years of age, the age when children were typically weaned, were buried inside the house; adults and older children were buried in a still unknown location or possibly cremated.  Thus, the burial of children less than four years of age under house floors likely reflects the fact that their parents believed that unweaned children went to a separate location in the afterworld, Chichihualcuauhco, and they hoped that by burying the infant under the house floor they would soon return as a new baby.  Although infants younger than one year were typically buried without any offerings, children older than one year old were typically buried with small vessels, perhaps filled with offerings of food to accompany them into the afterlife.  Sometimes they were buried with other objects, such as figurines, ceramic balls, or items of adornment.

The burials from Structure 1 suggest that childhood illness and mortality were facts of life.   Four of the infants had a condition known as porotic hyperostosis caused by iron deficiency anemia, which caused pitting in the skull cavity.  Anemia in such young children was probably caused by intestinal illness rather than lack of nutrition.  Other children suffered from dental caries, congenital abnormalities, and Vitamin C deficiency.

Chichihualcuauhco, Vatican Codex.


De Lucia, Kristin, 2010. A Child’s House: Social Memory, Identity, and the Construction of Childhood in Early Postclassic Mexican Households.  American Anthropologist, Vol. 112, Number 4, pp. 607-624.