Do We Still Practice Human Sacrifice?

We May Not Be Chopping Off Heads on Pyramids Anymore, But What Are We Doing?

Michael A Gold
7 min readMar 2, 2022

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I reading a book about East Asian Archaeology last year, when an odd detail stuck out to me. In many of the monumental buildings that have been excavated from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages sites in China, we find the corpses of people in the foundations. Now, we know that at other sites, like Çatalhöyük in what is now Turkey, relatives were often interred under houses. Those bodies are carefully wrapped and placed under the floor before being covered.

A diorama of a Neolithic Chinese settlement

Not so for these bodies in China. Many show signs of torture and mutilation before being buried in the building’s foundation. Furthermore, isotopic analysis of their bones reveals that they were a distinct population from those who lived at these settlements. They were from elsewhere. It’s currently believed that they were captured in some kind of conflict, held in the settlement for a few years, and then finally sacrificed and laid to rest in the building’s foundation as a way to ensure that the building would last, or that the work done in the building would prosper. In other words, the lives of these captives were traded for some kind of boon, be that good fortune or longevity. Human lives were a currency.

Human sacrifice has a long history. In certain eras of Egypt’s long history, servants would be buried alive alongside kings to serve them in the afterlife. Famously, the Mexica of mesoamerica sacrificed captives atop their great pyramids, in order to stave off the destruction of the world. People buried in bogs in northern Europe are believed to have been sacrifices, though, like those interred in Neolithic Chinese buildings, we don’t have much concrete knowledge on what these sacrifices were supposed to accomplish. Sacrifices, as well as ritualized torture ending (usually) in death, can be seen in both the archaeological and the historical record all over the world. It was apparently prevalent enough in the ancient near east that in Genesis, there’s a whole story where Abraham almost commits a human sacrifice in order to tell the Israelites not to do it.

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Michael A Gold

Michael writes about history, religion, and the Bible. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and Netflix account.