Archaeological Mystery Scientific mystery

The World’s Sharpest Sword Mystery: the Aztec Macuahuitl.

Throughout history, people have devised various weapons to enhance their combat capabilities. The khopesh, a lethal sword, was a prominent weapon in ancient Egypt. Cast from a single piece of heavy bronze, it was shaped like a cross between a sword and battle axe. Even Ramses II is depicted as wielding one.

In Japan’s Edo era, a sodegarami was a favorite weapon among officers. This spiked pole was used to quickly entangle and subdue an enemy, without necessarily inflicting fatal injuries.

The Aztec warriors relied on the macuahuitl, a weapon made from oak wood with edges embedded with sharp obsidian blades. Although not a conventional metal sword, it was effective in causing severe bleeding and painful wounds.

When Cortés encountered the Aztecs in Central America, he witnessed firsthand the power of the macuahuitl on the battlefield. Chronicles of his battles and other historical documents depict the Aztecs as a fierce and warrior-based society.

The jaguar and eagle were symbolic predators that played a significant role in Aztec culture, and warriors would dress up to resemble one of them. The belief was that such an appearance would instill fear in their enemies. To join the Aztec battle groups, a new warrior had to capture an enemy soldier first.

The Aztecs had a well-established military system and a highly developed battlefield strategy. The Aztec warriors who used the macuahuitl would advance only when the archers or slingers approached the enemy. The macuahuitl was their most valuable asset in close combat.

Resembling a cricket bat, the macuahuitl had a length of about three and a half feet. While many examples of this weapon were wielded with one hand, some required two hands to hold and fight effectively.

Aztec warriors as shown in the 16th century Florentine Codex (Vol. IX). Each warrior is brandishing a maquahuitl.

The macuahuitl had four to eight razor-sharp blades on each side, depending on its size. Some versions had a complete single edge formed by obsidian, a volcanic material that could not be removed. The Aztecs wielded their swords with short and chopping movements, and, as many accounts suggest, they were able to decapitate both humans and horses.

In addition to the macuahuitl, the Aztecs also used the tepoztopilli, a polearm-like weapon made of wood with obsidian blades. At five to six feet in length, it was slightly longer than the macuahuitl.

Cortés’ conquistadors witnessed the power of the Aztec weaponry firsthand. Spanish horse riders reported that the Aztec swords were able to decapitate horses. The wounds inflicted were so deep that the head would remain attached only by the skin.

Contrary to popular belief, the macuahuitl was not an invention of the Aztecs. It was a weapon used by various groups in Central Mexico and other parts of Mesoamerica.

Christopher Columbus was fascinated by the macuahuitl when he encountered it after reaching the Americas. He ordered his people to collect a sample to take back to Spain.

This drawing, from the 16th century Florentine Codex, shows Aztec warriors brandishing macuahuitls

Today, there aren’t any original macuahuitl  surviving, only various re-creations of the weapon based on knowledge extracted from contemporary accounts and illustrations produced during the 16th century or earlier.

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