When Hernan Cortes landed in the vicinity of Mexico in 1519, he quickly began causing problems for the Aztecs by exploiting the precarious politics of the region. He first brought the disgruntled Totonac people into rebellion against Montezuma II and then marched inland to meet with the Tlaxcalans, bitter rivals of the Aztecs. The Tlaxcalans first took Hernan Cortes to be a hostile invader and responded to his presence in their land with force. After several battles, however, Cortes was able to bring the Tlaxcalans into negotiations and formed with them an alliance that would eventually topple the Aztec Empire.
While the Spaniards were staying at Tlaxcala, the locals gave Cortes and his officers women to marry, food to eat, and an abundance of intelligence information, spanning topics such as Aztec military formations, the layout of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), and an explanation of Montezuma’s water supply system. As the Tlaxcalans were in such a sharing mood, they also treated the Spaniards to some of their local curiosities. One such display was a set of huge bones which were shown to the explorers. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a member of Hernan Cortes’ expedition, described the Spanish reaction to the huge remains or fossils:
“To show us how big these giants had been they brought us the leg-bone of one, which was very thick and the height of an ordinary-sized man, and that was a leg-bone from the hip to the knee. I measured myself against it, and it was as tall as I am, though I am of a reasonable height….We were all astonished by the sight of these bones and felt certain there must have been giants in that land. And Cortes said that we ought to send the leg-bone to Castile so that His Majesty might see it, which we did by the first agents who went there” (The Conquest of New Spain, Chapter 78).
According to Bernal Díaz, the Tlaxcalans had a folklore explanation for the gigantic bones. The native story allegedly aligned with the Spaniards’ own impression that the bones belonged to an extinct group of huge humanoids. Tlaxcalan tradition, Bernal Díaz claimed, told of an evil race of giants who lived in the region in the distant past. The ancestors of the Tlaxcalans were said to have waged war against the giants and eventually drove the creatures into extinction.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Dinosaur Exhibit in the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, Texas, USA. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.