From prehistory to the 21st century, human sacrifice has been practiced around the world by numerous cultures. Live Science takes a look at 25 cultures that practiced, or still practice, human sacrifice.
Human sacrifice was practiced in China for thousands of years. At a 4,000-year-old cemetery near modern-day Mogou village in northwestern China, archaeologists found hundreds of tombs, some of which held human sacrifices. One sacrificed victim was around 13 years old. Archaeologists have also found thousands of human sacrifices at Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1040 B.C.) sites in the modern-day city of Anyang.
The practice of human sacrifice seems to have stopped or become very rare by the time China was unified in 221 B.C. by Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. The first emperor’s Terracotta army, made up of thousands of life-size clay warriors, allowed him to take an army with him to the afterlife without sacrificing real-life warriors.
The Great Death Pit at the ancient city of Ur, in modern-day Iraq, contains the remains of 68 women and six men, many of which appear to have been sacrificed. Dating back about 4,600 years, a variety of fantastic treasures, including a statuette known as the Ram in the Thicket, which is made of silver, shell, gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian, were found in the death pit. Archaeologists believe that the pit was used to bury Ur’s rulers.
A 10-foot (3 meters) mound called Mound 72 by modern-day archaeologists holds the remains of 272 people, many of them sacrificed. It is located at Cahokia, a city located near modern-day St. Louis that flourished from A.D. 1050 to 1200.
The archaeology of the mound is complex, but it appears as if people were sacrificed gradually in a series of episodes. In one episode, 52 malnourished women ages 18 to 23, along with a woman in her 30s, were sacrificed at the same time. In another episode, it appears that 39 men and women were clubbed to death. The mound also holds the remains of two individuals who were buried with 20,000 shell beads. It’s possible that some or all of the sacrifices were dedicated to the two individuals.
The Inca flourished during the 15th ccentury A.D., conquering large swaths of territory in the Andes and connecting it with a vast system of roads. The Inca also practiced child sacrifice; their mummies have been found by archaeologists, often near the summit of mountains or volcanoes.
In one famous example, three child mummies were found near the remains of a shrine at Mount Llullaillaco — a 22,100-foot-tall (6,740 meters) active volcano on the border of Chile and Argentina. Researchers found that in the year before they died they were “fattened up” with a diet of maize and dried llama meat; and before their death, they were given maize beer and coca leaves. How exactly they were killed is unknown.
The ancient Maya practiced human sacrifice on special occasions. These sacrifices were sometimes conducted in their temples, and many of the victims may have been prisoners of war. At the ancient city of Chichen Itza, victims were painted blue, in honor of the rain god Chaak, before being sacrificed and thrown into a well.
Some archaeologists believe that Maya ball games would, on rare occasions, end with members of the losing or winning team being sacrificed. Evidence for these sacrifices is mainly found in depictions of Maya art, and not all archaeologists interpret the images as representing the sacrifice of a ball team.
The Hebrew Bible mentions human sacrifice being carried out by Israelites several times; however, researchers do not agree on how often the practice occurred or whether it took place at all. Perhaps the most famous biblical story is that of Abraham who, in the book of Genesis, was told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Before the deed is done, God stops him and tells Abraham that he was only testing him.
Whether the stories in the Hebrew Bible indicate that human sacrifice actually occurred in ancient Israel is a source of debate among researchers. Unless clear archaeological evidence is found it’s unlikely that the debate will ever be resolved.