The human sacrifice diet: interesting in an appalling way

How did anyone even think of doing this study?

Scientists explore the lives of ancient human sacrifice victims by analyzing what they ate.

During the final two centuries of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) in China, thousands of people were sacrificed at the state capital of Yinxu. Some were dispatched with great fanfare, buried with rich grave goods, while others appear to have been sacrificed with extreme prejudice and mutilated after death. Now, a new study sheds some light on these victims. Simon Fraser University bioarchaeologist Christina Cheung and her colleagues reconstructed these ancient people’s’ lives by discovering what they ate and when, based on chemical signatures left in their bones.

Human sacrifice was a common ritual among the people of almost every ancient civilization, from China and Europe, to Mesopotamia and the Americas. Though archaeologists have analyzed the graves of these sacrifices, they have many questions about the victims’ lives. Were they revered and celebrated before death, or were they outcasts? Were they prisoners from far away, or were they the sons and daughters of their executioners?

Cheung and her team answered a number of these questions with a chemical analysis of the bones of 68 sacrificial victims at Yinxu, which were compared with the bones of 39 locals.

So, okay, this *is* interesting. In a fairly disturbing way.

I knew human sacrifice was not really rare, but I wonder if it’s fair to say: common among almost every ancient civilization. If you’re up on ancient history, please weigh in.

Archaeologists typically find rensheng in mass graves that they divide into “skull pits,” “headless pits,” and “mutilated pits.” As you might guess, these are pits full of skulls, decapitated bodies, and partial bodies, respectively. … We can’t say for sure what was happening in Yinxu that made human sacrifice seem appealing. Were these early leaders of China trying to build a new state, based on their ruthless strength? Or were they worried that their control was slipping and offering sacrifices to regain an earlier greatness?

All we know is that the Shang Dynasty kept a prison full of outcasts readily available so that at any time the public could be witness to the public sacrifices of people their leaders called foes.

Well, I’m happier and happier to have given that particular society a miss. Along with basically all other ancient societies.

I can tell you that if mass human sacrifice takes place in one of my books, it’ll be just the bad guys doing it and they will ultimately be crushed by the good guys. Too bad the real world doesn’t follow the conventions of heroic fantasy.

Well, it is an interesting article, although after reading it you may want to check out something warm and fuzzy, like these police rescuing ducklings or these fishermen rescuing a dog from a freezing river.

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5 thoughts on “The human sacrifice diet: interesting in an appalling way”

  1. “common” is definitely a reach, though I think practically every ancient civilization did do it occasionally.

  2. FAscinating in a gruesome way. It reminds me a bit of that recent news about the huge (for ancient times) battlefield someone’s been digging up in N. Europe. Participants came from very far away, again, according to clues to what they ate.

  3. Thanks for weighing in on the commonness issue, Craig. And that’s an interesting addition, Elaine. Even then it was a “See foreign lands filled with exotic people, and kill them,” I guess.

  4. Katie Patchell

    I know that the Hebrews/Israelites (early Jewish lineage) absolutely did not practice human sacrifice, even though many early Mesopotamian cultures around them did. I’m not sure if the Egyptians did though? I know at one point they threw children to crocodiles, which may have been a sacrifice to the crocodile or Nile gods. The Greeks and Romans might…not have….but then again, they had very war-oriented cultures or cultures that were drawn into conflict (i.e. the Greeks with Persia and other city-states) that perhaps they didn’t need “traditional human sacrifice”. I know that the Greeks believed in Arete (moral excellence), and valued it so highly that they wanted to exhibit it in war, so again, battle, excellence, and sacrifice might be interlinked for them. The Romans *did* also have human sacrifice in the Games at the Colosseum, so I’d take that off the list of “no human sacrifice” cultures.

  5. Here’s a link to Science’s article on the findings of that battle: And a bit of the article

    The closest known large settlement around this time is more than 350 kilometers to the southeast, in Watenstedt. It was a landscape not unlike agrarian parts of Europe today, except without roads, telephones, or radio.

    And yet chemical tracers in the remains suggest that most of the Tollense warriors came from hundreds of kilometers away. The isotopes in your teeth reflect those in the food and water you ingest during childhood, which in turn mirror the surrounding geology—a marker of where you grew up. Retired University of Wisconsin, Madison, archaeologist Doug Price analyzed strontium, oxygen, and carbon isotopes in 20 teeth from Tollense. Just a few showed values typical of the northern European plain, which sprawls from Holland to Poland. The other teeth came from farther afield, although Price can’t yet pin down exactly where. “The range of isotope values is really large,” he says. “We can make a good argument that the dead came from a lot of different places.”

    It doesn’t look like just a ‘strangers, eek, kill!’ scenario, not with so many from far away. Maybe it was a double sided ‘strangers, eek’ response, fighting over who’d get to cross the river first.

    Carthage definitely had child sacrifice, given the findings of so many small skeletons. How does something like the Roman tradition of the child not really counting as his until he accepts it, which given Romans & war might have been a long time off, count, should he reject a child? I believe they were supposed to be abandoned or killed at that point.

    My brother and his wife are in archaeology and worked in the US Southwest a while ago, and remarked on finding human bones with signs of butchery. Whether it was human sacrifice or cannibalism I never heard.

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