Recent research conducted at the Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca, Mexico, has dispelled a long-standing historical error regarding the identity of a skeleton on display at the site. Initially believed to be the remains of a Spanish monk, the bones were instead identified as belonging to a middle-aged Indigenous woman.
The burial, initially excavated in 1971, was thought to be that of Juan Leyva, a Spanish monk who served the Marchioness Juana de Zúñiga y Arellano, wife of Hernán Cortés. The identification was based on a 16th-century Franciscan codex that described Leyva’s burial next to the gate of the old house. However, discrepancies in the skeletal features, such as a fetal-like burial position and cranial modification, raised questions about this identification.
Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) recently announced the results of a new analysis conducted by anthropologists Pablo Neptalí Monterroso Rivas and Isabel Bertha Garza Gómez. Their examination challenged the long-held belief and determined that the skeleton was, in fact, that of a Tlahuica woman, a member of the Aztec tribe.
The skeletal analysis revealed that the individual was a female, aged between 30 and 40 at the time of death. The presence of cranial flattening, a fetal-like burial position, and other distinctive features suggested an Indigenous origin. The researchers proposed that the woman was buried in a ritualistic manner, possibly as part of a series of events, such as sacrifices, around the time of the Spanish invasion between 1500 and 1521.
Jorge Angulo, an archaeologist with INAH, commented on the significance of the findings, stating, “It is more related to a pre-Hispanic burial, which could belong to the contact period or earlier.” This challenges the previously held belief that the burial belonged to a Spanish monk and highlights the importance of reevaluating historical assumptions.
The study also uncovered additional bones from other individuals, including an infant and a child, prompting suggestions of a possible familial connection. To further clarify relationships, researchers recommended conducting a DNA study. Despite the challenges posed by the skeleton’s damaged state after years of exposure and humidity issues following the 2017 earthquake, the team expressed the hope that further preservation efforts and studies would be possible.
The Tlahuica woman’s burial holds particular significance due to its association with the Palace of Cortés. The palace built by the Spanish in the 1520s on the ruins of the Aztec city of Cuauhnáhuac. The reopened archaeological window, now updated with a plaque declaring the burial as that of a “Tlahuica Woman,” serves as a poignant reminder of the complex history embedded in the site.
As physical anthropologists Monterroso Rivas and Garza Gómez emphasized in their report, “It is worth reiterating the importance of the burial and its emblematic association with the palace.”