The Ultimate Sacrifice

Ann Gibbons’ story on human violence won a National Academies Keck Future Initiative Communication award in 2013. Gibbons is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

THE 63 SKELETONS WERE ARRANGED IN THE sealed death pit like actors on an eerie stage set. Just outside the King’s Grave, archaeologists found six soldiers lined up, still wearing helmets and “guarding” the royal tomb. Beside them were two ox-drawn carts with drivers, grooms, and oxen lying nearby. Rows of men and women lined the passage to the tomb, and courtesans with elaborate golden headdresses sat in a circle around a set of musical instruments. This was a “theatre of public cruelty,” enacted at the death of a Sumerian ruler about 4500 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia, according to an initial report by Leonard Woolley, the British archaeologist who excavated the royal tombs of Ur in Iraq in the 1920s and 1930s.


The Keck awards promote effective communication in science, engineering, medicine and any interdisciplinary work within and beyond the scientific community. This story won in the newspaper/magazine category in 2013.

Woolley concluded in 1934 that these courtesans and servants had drunk some “deadly or soporific drug” from cups and a large copper cauldron he found in the pit. Most scholars accepted his account that the victims had gone willingly to their deaths, to serve their ruler in the netherworld.

So, when three researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia took their first look recently at computed tomography scans of two skulls from the death pit, they got a big surprise. “Holy cow!” said paleoanthropologist Janet Monge when she saw unmistakable radiating fractures from a blow to the side of a skull. This wasn’t a case of mass suicide à la Jim Jones, but the ritual murder, or sacrifice, of 63 humans.

The Penn team proposed in a report in Antiquity last year that the retainers “were felled with a sharp instrument, heated, embalmed with mercury, dressed and [only then] laid ceremonially in rows.” The ornaments and helmets had obscured the damage from the mortal blows for decades.

This new look at the victims of Ur is one of a flurry of multidisciplinary studies that has recently documented a macabre trail of human sacrifice that leads to every corner of the world, from the death pits of Ur and China to burials atop the highest peaks of the Andes.

Using rigorous forensic and bioarchaeological methods, researchers have been able to reconstruct victims’ last days and hours, and sometimes their identities, testing controversial claims of human sacrifice. “This is an exciting time for this kind of research,” says biological anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University in New Orleans.

Researchers are finding that although human sacrifice was not frequent in most cultures, it was pervasive, taking place at one time or another in just about every ancient civilization in which someone had the rank and power to decide who died, Verano says. Although human sacrifice was seen as barbaric by classical times, it persisted in Rome, the Americas, and elsewhere until the rise of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions that condemned it. Across cultures, most cases shared twin motivations: to please the gods, and to vividly assert and display rulers’ power. For early states, whose rulers were consolidating power, ritual sacrifice seems to have been one way to discourage outside attacks and internal revolt by sowing fear. The cross-cultural data are beginning to give researchers an idea of “key patterns in the origins, motivation, and methods of [sacrifice],” says bioarchaeologist Haagen Klaus of Utah Valley University in Orem.

Myth or reality?

It doesn’t take a scholar to guess from the friezes of Roman temples, images on Maya pots, or scenes in ancient Greek plays that our ancestors might have sacrificed one another. Historical accounts—from Herodotus in Greece and Pliny the Elder in Rome to Spanish priests in the Americas—recount sacrifices made by the Scythians, Etruscans, Romans, Incas, Aztecs, and Norse. Engraved labels on ancient Egyptian jars suggest that some early rulers took servants and concubines with them to the next world. Art on ceramic urns show a Maya god “sitting down to a plate of human hearts, just like a Maya king would eat a plate of tamales,” says bioarchaeologist Andrew Scherer of Brown University.

Although depictions of ritualistic decapitation and dismemberment are found in the art and literature of many societies, convincing physical evidence has been rare until recently. “People didn’t really look at marks of perimortem violence, so they didn’t see the evidence,” says bioarchaeologist Vera Tiesler Blos of the Autonomous University of Yucatán in Mexico.

This led some researchers to challenge the claims for human sacrifice in general and in Mesoamerica in particular. “I don’t think that what we say is human sacrifice is anything other than [deaths in] war,” says archaeologist Elizabeth Graham of University College London, who studies Maya sites in Belize. She notes that victims are often captives taken in war. “All societies have socially sanctioned killing,” she says, citing the Holocaust of Germany as a particularly grievous recent example. “The poor Aztecs have been made out to be the most brutal people in the world, but if it’s actually warfare, they killed few people.”

Researchers agree that iconography and texts alone can’t confirm sacrifice. For example, ethnographic accounts claim that the Aztecs slaughtered 80,000 war captives when dedicating the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, but this is widely considered an exaggeration. However, in the past 15 years, researchers at Aztec sites have excavated sacrificial knives and stones, some with traces of human blood, as well as bones with cut marks and signs of heart extraction. This has “led us to conclude without a doubt that human sacrifice was a basic practice of Aztec religion,” says Leonardo López Luján of the Templo Mayor Museum at the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. At Tenochtitlan, his team found 47 decapitated bodies and 42 children with slit throats.

So many new cases of sacrifice have been documented in the past decade that researchers classify them informally. There are retainer burials where slaves die with their owners; offerings of prized children; dedicatory burials that are a sort of bloody feng shui to bless buildings, such as Tenochtitlan during construction; and ritual killings of captives from war.

The difference between these deaths and other state-sanctioned killings is that sacrifice is ritualistic. Researchers add that they aren’t targeting any particular society; indeed, a major finding is that human sacrifice was found in most emerging city-states around the world, particularly under a new ruler or in times of crisis. At the same time, it was relatively rare within populations. “Not everyone gets a sacrifice at their funeral,” Scherer says. Klaus agrees: “There’s not a lot of trauma in the populations at large. But a special subset of people did die extremely brutal and violent deaths at a variety of sites.”

Loyal subjects

Retainer sacrifice, as at Ur, was apparently performed so that rulers could live in the afterlife much as they did in life, and to demonstrate their importance to the living. “It’s not a sacrifice in the sense of slaughtering a cow or offering meat” to a god, says Penn archaeologist Richard Zettler. At Ur, the court attendants were set up as though they were at a banquet with food, drink, and music. They were adorned in golden wreaths studded with lapis lazuli and carnelian.

But did those who died really play the roles of guards, grooms, and courtesans in life? Strontium isotopes in bones and teeth show that two retainers at Ur were born locally and were not foreign captives, suggesting that they were indeed servants, says Penn archaeologist Aubrey Baadsgaard.

Such extravagant retainer sacrifices were rare. At Ur, the practice appears in only 16 out of about 2000 graves unearthed in the Royal Cemetery. But it also occurs in Egypt, at the tomb of King Aha in Abydos, in 2900 B.C.E.; and in China in the 2nd millennium B.C.E. when kingship had just been established, says archaeologist Glenn Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “When you establish a new kingdom, a new kind of political organization with a ruler at the top, very often there is this strategy of making a big show of the power of this new social order by having this kind of retainer sacrifice,” Schwartz says.

At Ur, the number of sacrificial victims and wealth of the treasures declines from about 2600 B.C.E. to 2450 B.C.E. The practice also declines and then vanishes in Egypt, perhaps because it was too costly to bury such wealth, both in objects and human life, or because established kings didn’t need such a conspicuous display of power.

The Maya also practiced a form of retainer sacrifice in which some victims were children. In 2010, Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston and his colleagues found six blood-red cache vessels beside a king’s body in an airtight chamber of the El Diablo pyramid in the jungle near El Zotz, Guatemala. Interred in about 350 C.E., the caches contained the heads, teeth, and bodies of six children, aged 6 months to 5 years. The smallest were stuffed in the bowls whole, but the older children had been dismembered. Several had been ritually burned around the face and chest with low heat.

This matches previously known Maya iconography, showing children burning in large bowls with their hearts cut out, Scherer says. Such sacrifices “don’t seem to have anything to do with warfare,” Scherer says. “The Maya are replicating myths, with scenes of child sacrifice to the maize god.”

Mountaintop maiden. This 15-year-old Inca girl was sacrificed atop Volcán Llullaillaco in Argentina 500 years ago. Originally published in Science Magazine. Republished with permission by Johan Reinhard.

Sacrificial lambs

Children were victims in other cultures, too, perhaps because they are often seen as the most precious offering. The Inca, for example, built platforms high in the southern Andes, where they held mountaintop ceremonies called capacocha, in which they sacrificed beautiful, unblemished children.

For example, a 15-year-old girl called the Llullaillaco Maiden was discovered in 1999 with a 7-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl atop the 6739-meter-elevation Volcán Llullaillaco in northwest Argentina ( The children were buried about 500 years ago, with gold and silver figurines. Two had headdresses of white feathers; one, a silver bracelet. Their youth and rich gifts suggest they were not captives of war, says archaeologist Johan Reinhard of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.

The children were apparently treated well, consistent with ethnographic records suggesting that it was an honor to be chosen for this sacrifice. Stable isotopes from the Maiden’s hair showed that her diet changed dramatically about a year before death, from a peasant’s diet to one suddenly rich in meat and maize, an elite food; her diet shifted to more grains a few months before her death, as she trekked to the peak. “Children were specially selected and treated royally perhaps a year before they were taken up to the mountaintop,” Verano says.

Child “sacrifice doesn’t mean giving up those you don’t like,” Klaus says. “It’s giving up those that matter the most.” And the Inca may not have thought of their children as dying. “In this very sacred mountain environment, they’d be seen as living with the gods,” Reinhard says. “They would, in essence, become deified.”

And yet even Inca priests may have had an eye to impressing other humans as well as the gods, says bioarchaeologist Tiffiny Tung of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The feting of the children en route to the peaks and the hubris of staging sacrifices at such lofty heights would have inspired awe and fear, helping the Inca assert power over their vast empire,
Reinhard says.

Captive audience

Trophy head. The Wari of Peru made a trophy of this captive foreigner’s head in a highly ritualized process. Originally published in Science Magazine. Republished with permission by Tiffany Tung.

There are many instances of reverential child sacrifice, but researchers agree that killing captives after battle may have been the most common kind of human sacrifice. Performed by cultures as diverse as the Aztec, the Wari, and the Shang Dynasty in China, this practice involves more than merely disposing of captives, those who study it insist. It is designed to shock and awe both enemies and subjects.

For example, in the 1980s, Chinese researchers uncovered 14 skulls in a row, including one placed inside a bronze food steamer, in the royal cemetery of Anyang, the capital of the ancient Shang dynasty in east-central China. The researchers assumed the skull fell into the pot by accident. Then in 1999, another skull turned up in a steamer in a tomb in a later Shang capital, according to archaeologist Tang Jigen of China’s Academy of Social Sciences. This “leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the Shang people did indeed have the cruel custom of steaming human heads,” he said in a recent publication.

Anyang fits the profile of cultures that sacrifice captives: At about 1200 B.C.E., it was the center of the country’s first expansive power. Archaeologists found up to 15,000 sacrificial victims during digs in the 1930s and 1950s, and are now examining them in detail. Most are men of military age who were decapitated, Jigen says.

The men’s arms and legs were frequently cut off in similar ways, suggesting they were killed ritually rather than in battle, and the human remains are mixed with animal bones. Few pits contain goods such as pottery that are included in typical burials. Shang oracle bones provide hints of sacrificial procedures: One inscription made on a defleshed skull mentions the decapitation of an enemy leader.

The deaths may mark the ritual killing of war captives in order to provide food or slaves to ancestors, says archaeologist Roderick Campbell of New York University, noting that the pits often contain remains of cattle, dogs, grain, wine, and other material commonly used in sacrifices. Later dynasties did not continue the penchant for sacrifice, about which later Chinese annals are silent.

Halfway around the world, the iconography of the Moche of northern Peru also suggests brutal sacrifice of war captives, done in ways that highlight the victor’s power. Images show captives being paraded naked with bloody noses before a warrior priest and having their throats slit. But until the 1990s, some researchers thought that such scenes depicted Moche mythology or staged drama, not reality.

The overwhelming bioarchaeological evidence of hundreds of sacrificial victims, gathered since the 1990s, contradicts that view, Verano says. For example, the remains of more than 100 young men in a Moche plaza at the pyramid of Huaca de la Luna were either left exposed on the surface to be buried by windblown sand, or were incorporated in the fill of plazas during their construction around 500 C.E., Verano says. Analysis of the remains suggests these victims were captives brought back from battle, as they had wounds that had partially healed. Patterns of cut marks on the neck vertebrae and other bones confirm they were decapitated and that their bodies were defleshed. This was, Verano says, a “prominent display of military victory.”

The study of sacrifice is also illuminating the politics and social structure of ancient societies. For example, researchers knew that after the Moche collapsed, their descendants, the Muchik, were ruled by another culture, the Sicán. Both cultures practiced sacrifice. But the details suggest that the Sicán governed loosely, Klaus says, because the Muchik still killed victims, often children, the traditional Moche way: The children’s throats were slit, their chests were cut open to remove hearts, and their bodies buried with long-standing Moche funerary rituals. “It’s a Moche template,” not a Sicán one, Klaus says.

In other cases, researchers are using the existence of human sacrifice to show that certain cultures were more organized and sophisticated than had been realized. For example, a few scholars have suggested that the Wari of central Peru were not a state-level society. But Tung says their practices of human sacrifice, found as early as 600 C.E. to 1000 C.E. at Conchopata, suggest state-level control and organization.

Tung and Kelly Knudson of Arizona State University, Tempe, have analyzed stable isotopes in 72 Wari trophy heads, many of children, and buried bodies. Of 29 properly buried bodies, all belonged to local people. But almost all of the trophy heads came from foreigners. This suggests that they were captives, according to a report last year in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

Captives were brought alive to Conchopata, beheaded, and then processed into trophy heads in a “very systematic, very standardized way,” Tung says. “They clearly had a standardized tool kit for drilling holes on the top of the head for the cord, so the heads would be upright and facing forward when displayed.” This matches drawings on large ceramic urns, which show Wari warriors seizing prisoners and carrying trophy heads. “This is important, because it suggests you have Wari state structures used to promote this”—to coordinate the warriors, the priests who made the trophy heads, and the artists who depicted them on urns, Tung says.

The practice suggests a state-level society asserting its absolute authority against outsiders, Tung says. “Sacrifice is very orchestrated—it’s not just death on the battlefields. It’s a performance to demonstrate to your internal community and outsiders your absolute power.”

As more cases of sacrifice emerge, some defy classification. This suggests that researchers have just begun to exhume the myriad ways that humans killed each other in the name of the gods and the state. “Our ability to see sacrifice in the past was somewhat limited. Now we’re able to expand that view,” Monge says. “I’d say we’re just coming to realize in some measure the enormity of the violence of humans against humans.”

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