If you’re like me, when the state of the world gets you down your mind goes to introspective places like, “how did humankind get this way?” I keep returning to an old grad school steady, Kenneth Burke and his theory on the cult of the kill. Then I recently found an article on the ritual killings of bog bodies in Europe and thought I’d share the results of my recent rabbit hole:
Evidence of human sacrifice has been discovered deep into prehistory. Ritual human sacrifice was thought to have originated in complex societies such as the Aztecs but archeologists are finding ties to hunter-gatherers throughout the Upper Paleolithic period as well. This is an important development because it suggests that our earliest ancestors were far more advanced than previously thought. It also poses the question if humans have been observing the symbolic importance of burial and death since our species began. (Credit)
The photo above is an artistic rendering of two preteens whose bodies were found in modern Russia radiocarbon dated to the Stone Age. They were discovered with grave inclusions consisting of over 5,000 chipped ivory beads and fox teeth. Their bones were covered in a pigmented clay called red ochre. Because of their elaborate decorations and odd placement the remnants did not match other funeral sites documented from that period. The photo below depicts another odd burial of three teenagers from the same time found in the Czech province of Moravia with similar anomalies. Scholars argue that these strange similarities can be explained by ritual sacrifice.
Other instances of ritual sacrifice have shown up along the vast cultural timeline including the Japanese tradition of Hitobashira in which a person was buried alive under a public building like a dam or bridge in prayer to the gods for protection from natural disasters and enemy attacks. This tradition took place as early as 323 AD.
Human sacrifice is common in Western myth and practice including Greek mythology and religious texts. In Homer’s Illiad, Iphigenia was to be sacrificed by her father in hopes of winning the Trojan War. According to the Bible, Judges 11:30-34, Jephthah vows his daughter as a burnt offering if he won the battle against the Ammonites. The Celts ritualistically impaled victims in order to foretell the future from their death moans. Many pre-modern tribes practiced headhunting or the ceremonial beheading of an adversary for magical purposes. I hate to use Wikipedia as a reference here but honestly the list of examples is so long you can explore evidence yourself spanning every continent and epoch all the way through the European colonization of the Americas. It is still practiced in parts of the developing world. Of course, the Aztec’s popularized the tradition having purportedly killed a few thousand people each year who were both members of the Aztec community and prisoners of war.
Bog bodies are some of the best known examples of mummified human remains. They vary wildly in age, spanning as far back as 8000 BCE until WWII. Due to high levels of acid found in decaying peat moss, a few of the bodies are in perfect condition showing details like hair and follicles. While the exact number of cadavers found has been contested, hundreds of full and partial bodies have been catalogued and studied. Most of them are casualties of ritual sacrifice scientists now believe.
What I can’t stop thinking about is how pervasive this practice has been. We cannot deny that modern civilization bears a common thread. Ritual sacrifice has touched every continent and many major religious groups. Modern Christians worship a man who was publicly tortured and offered up to a greater deity in exchange for life beyond the grave. (Credit)
It’s easy to cleave whole parts of the story and use it draw lines between the civilized and barbaric world. It’s a lot like what I talked about in my post on cannibalism. Again, this isn’t a discussion on the acceptability of murdering humans, rather an exercise in deducing why things are the way they are. In fact, a recent study suggests human sacrifice might have yielded many of the social hierarchies that now exist. This common early behavior made societies less egalitarian and eventually gave rise to strict class systems. In other words, ritual killing helped thin the crowd from dissenters and kept the powerful in place. Because power elites have been able to solidify their positions over centuries we’ve evolved to less obvious forms of social control like policing, taxation, and war to keep class systems in place.(Egyptian stone carving of human sacrifice. Credit)
Regardless of how we arrived at present state at least we have more or less stopped the sanctioned killing of folks. I don’t know if I’m convinced that ritual sacrifice alone caused complex class distinctions to emerge but I do think it’s important to take stock of where we came. When people wonder why things like gun violence and war are so difficult to stamp out I shudder to think the answers are much closer than we care to admit.