Human sacrifice is not merely the stuff of legends: Archaeologists have found evidence of it at sites across the globe. Sacrificial pits that dot the site of Yinxu, the last capital of China’s Shang dynasty, offer one notable example. The earliest Chinese dynasty to leave an archaeological record, the Shang era spanned from about 1600 BC to 1000 BC. More than 13,000 people were sacrificed at Yinxu over a roughly 200-year period, scientists estimate, with each sacrificial ritual claiming 50 human victims on average.
Recent research is deepening archaeological knowledge about the practice of sacrifice through history. This work, which often uses techniques from fields outside traditional archaeology, is offering new insights about the victims — where they were from, what roles they played in society, how they lived before they were killed and why they were chosen to begin with.
These findings, in turn, could help answer more fundamental questions about the functions that sacrifices served and the nature of the societies that performed them.
New methods for probing sacrifices
Sacrifices undoubtedly played dramatic roles in human affairs in ancient history, but these bloody rituals have proved challenging to study, says archaeologist Glenn Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University.
“Archaeology is all about analyzing the physical remains of human activity, and if you’re talking about religious issues such as beliefs in the cosmos and the supernatural, how do you infer those from physical objects?” he says. “It’s a lot easier for archaeologists to study, say, the economic or political issues of past societies than it is to study what they may have believed about the world and why they did what they did in religious contexts.”