Drawing part of the Catalog of the Royal Armoury of Madrid by the medievalist Achille Jubinal in the 19th century, original specimen was destroyed by a fire in 1884.
|Place of origin||Mexico|
|In service||Pre-classic to Post-Classic period (900–1570)|
|Used by||Aztecs, Mayans, Purépecha, Mixtecs|
|Wars||Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, Aztec expansionism, Mesoamerican Wars|
|Blade type||straight, thick, double-edged, tapered|
|Hilt type||Double-handed swept|
|Haft type||Straight, wood covered by leather|
A macuahuitl ([maːˈkʷawit͡ɬ] (singular)) is a wooden sword with obsidian blades. The name is derived from the Nahuatl language. Its sides are embedded with prismatic blades traditionally made from obsidian, famous for producing an edge far sharper than even high quality steel razor blades.
The weapon was used by many different civilizations in Mesoamerica including the Aztec (Mexicas), Mayan, Mixtec and Purépecha. The macuahuitl was the standard close combat weapon together with the Tepoztli and the long range spear thrower Atlatl. This weapon was used also during the campaigns of the Spaniards in Mexico by their Tlaxcalan allies.
One example of this weapon survived the Conquest of Mexico; it was part of the Royal Armoury of Madrid until it was destroyed by a fire in 1884. Its original design survives in diverse catalogues, among them the macuahuitl created by the medievalist Achille Jubinal in the 19th century.
The maquahuitl (Nahuatl: mācuahuitl, other orthographical variants include maquahutil, macquahuitl and māccuahuitl), a type of macana, was a common weapon used by the Aztec military forces and other cultures of central Mexico, that was noted during the 16th-century Spanish conquest of the region. They also used other implements such as the round shield (chimalli [t͡ʃiˈmalːi]), the bow (tlahuītōlli [t͡ɬawiːˈtoːlːi]), and the spear-thrower (atlatl [ˈat͡ɬat͡ɬ]). It was the only "sword" with ceramic material in its edges, only comparable with the modern ceramic knife. It was capable of inflicting serious lacerations from the rows of obsidian blades embedded in its sides, which could be knapped into blades or spikes, or in a circular fashion that looked like "scales" It is sometimes referred to as a sword or club, but it lacks a true European equivalent, perhaps it is best described as a baton with a cutting edge.
According to one source, the macuahuitl was 3 to 4 feet (0.91 to 1.22 m) long, and three inches (80 mm) in diameter, with a groove along either edge, into which sharp-edged pieces of flint or obsidian were inserted, and firmly fixed with an adhesive. The rows of obsidian blades were sometimes discontinuous, leaving gaps along the side, while at other times the rows were set close together and formed a single edge. It was noted by the Spanish that the macuahuitl was so cleverly constructed that the blades could be neither pulled out nor broken.
The macuahuitl was made with either one-handed or two-handed grips, as well as in rectangular, ovoid, or pointed forms. The two-handed macuahuitl has been described “as tall as a man”.
According to National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH) archaeologist Marco Cervera Obregón, there were two versions of this weapon: The macuahuitl, about 70–80 cm long and had six to eight blades on each side, and the mācuāhuitzōctli, a smaller club about 50 cm long with only four obsidian blades.
According to Ross Hassig, the last authentic macuahuitl was destroyed in 1884 in a fire in the Real Armería in Madrid, where it was housed beside the last tepoztopilli. However, according to Marco Cervera Obregón, there is supposed to be at least one macuahuitl in a Museo Nacional de Antropología warehouse, but it is possibly lost.
No actual maquahuitl specimens remain and the present knowledge of them comes from contemporaneous accounts and illustrations that date to the 16th century and earlier.
Origins and distribution
The maquahuitl predates the Aztecs. Tools made from obsidian fragments were used by some of the earliest Mesoamericans. Obsidian used in ceramic vessels has been found at Aztec sites. Obsidian cutting knives, sickles, scrapers, drills, razors, and arrow points have also been found.
Several obsidian mines were close to the Aztec civilizations in the Valley of Mexico as well as in the mountains north of the valley, among them the Sierra de las Navajas ("Razor Mountains"), named after its obsidian deposits. In a Chichen Itza carving, a possible ancestor of the macuahuitl is shown as a club having separate blades sticking out from each side. In a mural, a warrior holds a club with many blades on one side and one sharp point on the other, a possible ancestor of the macuahuitl.
Pedro de Morón was a very good horseman, and as he charged with three other horsemen into the ranks of the enemy the Indians seized hold of his lance and he was not able to drag it away, and others gave him cuts with their broadswords, and wounded him badly, and then they slashed at the mare, and cut her head off at the neck so that it hung by the skin, and she fell dead.
Another account by a companion of Cortés known as The Anonymous Conqueror tells a similar story of its effectiveness:
They have swords of this kind — of wood made like a two-handed sword, but with the hilt not so long; about three fingers in breadth. The edges are grooved, and in the grooves they insert stone knives, that cut like a Toledo blade. I saw one day an Indian fighting with a mounted man, and the Indian gave the horse of his antagonist such a blow in the breast that he opened it to the entrails, and it fell dead on the spot. And the same day I saw another Indian give another horse a blow in the neck, that stretched it dead at his feet.— "Offensive and Defensive Arms", page 23
Another account by Francisco de Aguilar read:
They used ... cudgels and swords and a great many bows and arrows ... One Indian at a single stroke cut open the whole neck of Cristóbal de Olid’s horse, killing the horse. The Indian on the other side slashed at the second horseman and the blow cut through the horse’s pastern, whereupon this horse also fell dead.
As soon as this sentry gave the alarm, they all ran out with their weapons to cut us off, following us with great fury, shooting arrows, spears and stones, and wounding us with their swords. Here many Spaniards fell, some dead and some wounded, and others without any injury who fainted away from fright.
Given the importance of human sacrifice in Nahua cultures, their warfare styles (particularly those of the Aztec and Maya) placed a premium on the capture of enemy warriors for live sacrifice; advancement into the elite cuāuhocēlōtl warrior societies of the Aztec, for example, required taking 20 live captives from the battlefield. The macuahuitl thus shows several features designed to make it a useful tool for capturing prisoners: fitting spaced instead of contiguous blades (as seen in many codex illustrations) would intentionally limit the wound depth from a single blow, and the heavy wooden construction allows weakened opponents to be easily clubbed unconscious with the flat side of the weapon. The art of disabling opponents using an un-bladed macuahuitl as a sparring club was taught from a young age in the Aztec Tēlpochcalli schools.
The macuahuitl had many drawbacks in combat versus European steel swords. Despite being objectively sharper, prismatic obsidian is also considerably more brittle and fragile than steel: obsidian blades of the type used on the macuahuitl tended to shatter on impact with other obsidian blades, steel swords or plate armor, and also have severe difficulty penetrating European ring mail. The thin, replaceable blades used on the macuahuitl were also easily dulled or chipped by repeated impacts on bone or wood, making artful use of the weapon critical. It takes more time to lift and swing a club than it does to thrust with a sword. More space is needed as well, so warriors advanced in loose formations and fought in single combat.
Replicas of the macuahuitl have been produced and tested against sides of beef for documentary shows on the History and Discovery channels, which demonstrate the effectiveness of this weapon. On the History show Warriors, special forces operator and martial artist Terry Schappert injured himself while fencing with a macuahuitl, he cut the back of his left leg as the result of a back-swing motion, he replied: "I think I might need sutures, it's deep".
For SpikeTV's reality program Deadliest Warrior, a replica was created and tested against a model of a horse's head (created using a horse's skeleton and ballistics gel). Actor and martial artist Éder Saúl López was able to decapitate the model, but it took three swings. It was most effective when it was swung and then dragged backwards upon impact, creating a sawing motion, (which led to Max Geiger, the programs's computer programmer, to refer to the weapon as "the obsidian chainsaw"). This may have been due to the crudely made obsidian cutting edges used in the show's weapon, compared with the more finely made prismatic obsidian blades as in the Madrid specimen.
In the fifth season, episode eight ("Digging Deeper") of the FOX Television program White Collar, the character Brett Forsythe displays a macuahuitl as part of his collection of ancient artifacts.
In season two, episode thirteen ("Do You Know Who You Look Like?") of the Cartoon Network show China, IL, the weapon makes an appearance, the main characters challenge each other to a duel to the death with the weapon.
The weapon can be armed and used in the video game Assassin's Creed III: Liberation.
The macuahuitl has experienced somewhat of a rebirth in recent times.[when?] It enjoys a cult following, and interest on how to build the weapon and its capabilities remain a focal point. There are also many places online from which to buy modern replicas of the macuahuitl.
- Nahuatl Dictionary. (1997). Wired Humanities Project. University of Oregon. Retrieved September 1, 2012, from link
- Buck, BA (March 1982). "Ancient Technology in Contemporary Surgery". The Western journal of medicine 136 (3): 265–269. PMC 1273673. PMID 7046256.
- See Wimmer (2006), entry under 'MACUAHUITL': "de MACPA à MACUEXTZIN"
- Soustelle (1961), p.209.
- Coe (1962), p.168.
- From A.P. Maudslay's translation commentary of Bernal Díaz del Castillo's Verdadera Historia de la Conquista de Nueva España (republished as "The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico", p.465).
- See Hassig (1988), p.85.
- Hassig, Op. Cit. p.83.
- Cervera Obregón 2006, p. 128
- Hassig 1992, p.169.
- ,Cervera Obregón, Marco (2006). "The macuahuitl: an innovative weapon of the Late Post-Classic in Mesoamerica" (PDF). Arms & Armour 3 (2): 137–138. Retrieved 26 October 2010.
- Cerevera Obregón, Marco. "El macuahuitl, arqueologia experimental". Retrieved 26 October 2010.
- Smith p.86
- Smith p. 87
- Diaz del Castillo, p. 126
- The Anonymous Conqueror. (1917). Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitán The Cortés Society: Chapter 4. New York.
- Francisco de Auguilar, untitled account, in The Conquistadors, 139–40, 155.
- Berdan and Anawalt, The Essential Codex Mendoza, v.2-4". UCal Press; 1997. Folio 62-R, p.173."
- Richard Townsend, The Aztecs p. 24
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- Coe, Michael D. (1962). Mexico. New York: Frederick A. Praeger. ISBN 0-938631-36-5.
- Díaz del Castillo, Bernal (1956) [ca.1568]. Genaro Garcia (Ed.), ed. The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico 1517-1521. A. P. Maudslay (Trans.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. ISBN 0-415-34478-6.
- Hassig, Ross (1988). Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2121-1.
- Hassig, Ross (1992). War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07734-2.
- James, Peter; Nick Thorpe (1994). Ancient Inventions. New York: Ballantine Books.
- Smith, Michael E. (1996). The Aztecs. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.
- Soustelle, Jacques (1961). Daily Life of the Aztecs:On the Eve of the Spanish Conquest. Patrick O’Brian (Trans.). London: Phoenix Press. ISBN 1-84212-508-7.
- Townsend, Richard F. (2000). The Aztecs (revised ed.). London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28132-7.
- Peter Weller (Host), Jin Gaffer( Writer and Director), Mark Cannon (Series Director), Randy Martini (Series Producer), Jeremy Siefer (Editor) (2006). Engineering an Empire: The Aztecs (Documentary). History Channel.
- Wimmer, Alexis (2006). "Dictionnaire de la langue nahuatl classique" (online version). Retrieved 2007-08-22. (French) (Nahuatl)
- Cervera Obregón Marco A. “The macuahuitl: A probable weaponry innovation of the Late Posclassic in Mesoamérica” en Arms and Armour, Journal of the Royal Armouires, n.3, Leeds, 2006.
- Cervera Obregón Marco A. “El macuahuitl, un arma del Posclásico Tardío en Mesoamérica”, en Arqueología Mexicana, No 84, 2007.
- Cervera Obregón Marco A. El armamento entre los mexicas, GLADIUS, CSIC, Polifemo, Madrid, 2007 con prólogo de Ross Hassig.
- 16.Francisco de Auguilar, untitled account, in The Conquistadors, 139–40, 155.