Unraveling the Enigma of Ancient Human Sacrifices in China: What the Archeological Records Reveal

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
September 22, 2023
In ancient times, human sacrifices were considered the most effective way to reach the celestial (or underground) office, so ritual murders were widespread almost everywhere.

One way or another all ancient civilizations showed it up, but the first one, comes to mind, is pre-Columbian America, where Incas, the Mayans and especially the Aztecs turned human sacrifices into grandiose ritual performances. The second one, most likely, will be the Celtic civilization. Behind them – Vikings and Germans.

But scientists learned about the terrible details of the practice of sacrifice in the territory of ancient China only recently. When in 1928 excavations began in Yinxiu (literally – “the ruins of the Yin state”), few people assumed that the work would last for decades, and the finds would be literally terribly interesting.

Well in Yinxiu with a pile of fortunetelling bones made of shells of turtles.

Yinxiu is the ruins of the last capital of the Shang dynasty, which ruled China from the 16th to the 11th century BC. Shan is not the most ancient Chinese dynasty, but the first, whose existence is confirmed both by written sources and numerous archaeological finds.

At one time, the occasion for excavations in Yinxiu were unusual artifacts, found here in 1899: the fortunetelling bones. Rather, the mysterious old bones with inscriptions were found here before, but they were used in a completely different area – as a miraculous potion for malaria and stab wounds.

Hieroglyphs carved on ox-bones and tortoiseshells are now recognized as the oldest form of Chinese writing. Deciphering the inscriptions helped restore the entire tree of the rulers of the Shang dynasty and, among other things, learn very unusual details about the life of the state that existed 3100-3600 years ago.

As the excavation progressed, scientists were able to correlate the contents of the inscriptions on the fortunetelling bones with archaeological finds on site. The result was shocking.

Archaeologists have discovered huge number of mass graves in Yinxiu, neatly located throughout the ancient capital. Most of the tombs contained the remains of 10, 30 and 50 people. Scientists have noticed that in the inscriptions on the fortunetelling bones the same figures are mentioned when it comes to human sacrifices in exchange for the opinion of the higher forces on this or that issue.

According to last year, the total number of sacrificial human remains found on the “ruins of Yin”, reached 10 thousand. Over the past year, the numbers have changed: now scientists are already talking about 13 thousand people killed during ritual ceremonies and buried in Yingxiu. Not at once, of course: the researchers believe that such a number of victims “accumulated” for the 255 years that the capital of the Shang Dynasty was in this place.

“On the territory of the royal necropolis, we found the remains of at least 3000 sacrificed people, even more – during the excavation of the royal palace,” – says archaeologist Christina Cheng.
And this is only in Yinxi, the last capital of the Shang dynasty. Such mass burials with mutilated human remains were also found by researchers in other cities of the ancient Chinese state.

Judging by archaeological finds, human sacrifices were practiced in ancient China for a thousand years with the three dynasties – Xia, Shang and Zhou, successively succeeding each other. The most active “donators”, by all accounts, were the rulers of Shan. On average, each sacrificial ceremony carried away the lives of fifty people. During the largest sacrifice, 339 people were killed at a time.

According to Christina Cheng, in the era of Shan, there were two main types of human sacrifice: “rensheng” and “rensun.” In the graves of the victims of the Rensun, archeologists often find exquisite funeral gifts, and the burial context indicates that the victims of the Rensun were mostly servants or relatives of the deceased aristocrats and influential officials.

The remains of the victims of “rensheng” look quite different (the term is almost literally translated as “offering of the human sacrifice”): almost all of them are terribly mutilated, the bodies are buried in group graves, and funerary artifacts are either absent or very few.

Almost all “rensheng” were victims of predictions, extremely in demand in the era of Shang.

Since the connection between the bony bones and human victims is not the most obvious, it is worth explaining exactly how the process of divination was going on. Each of the kings of the Shang dynasty constantly faced vital questions: for example, does it please the spirits to save the ruler from an intolerable toothache or to give a rich harvest.

The predictor cut out (later – wrote down) the question on the appropriate medium (using the scapular bones of a bull or plastron, the lower shell of a tortoise), then he heated the bone or shell until cracks appeared, and then, through the pattern of cracks, “translated” the answer from the spirit world. Usually on the medium with the question the answer (result) was written down, and also the date – all officially, even everyday, for archives and reporting.

Modern specialists note extreme cruelty and complete disregard for human life in ancient China – “people were sacrificed in almost the same ways as animals, in the eyes of the ruling elite the difference between a slave and cattle was small,” said one of the linguists studying texts on Sham bones.

At the same time, brutal mass sacrifices speak of the extreme devotion of the rulers of Shan – in the context of their world and their time they performed charitable (pre-and nature-friendly) deeds, showing an example of piety and earnest reverence for the higher powers.

Chinese experts usually emphasize that the phenomenon of human sacrifice was spread everywhere, and the ancient Chinese customs are only part of the world practice. A sort of hint: they say, first look at your story.

Mass ritual sacrifices in China came to “no” around 700 BC, and not at all because of the increase in the humanity of society. There appeared a simpler and more widely available method of divination that does not require blood and is very popular so far: it is the famous “Book of Changes”, I-Ching, which saved thousands and thousands of human lives. When you want to know your future for the I-Ching, remember the story we told.