Ancient Mass Sacrifice, Riches Discovered in China Tomb

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing, China
for National Geographic News
January 29, 2008
A 2,500-year-old tomb containing nearly four dozen victims of human sacrifice has been excavated in eastern China, yielding a treasure trove of precious artifacts and new insights into ritual customs during the era of Confucius, archaeologists say.

The tomb was discovered in January 2007 after police caught looters plundering the site in the province of Jiangxi (see map), said Xu Changqing, who heads the excavation team.

The burial chamber was constructed for the patriarch of an aristocratic family and contains 47 dead buried side by side, Xu said.

Among the most impressive artifacts found in the tomb is a black, gold, and blood-red sword inscribed with pictures of dragons. Xu described it as "the most beautiful and best-preserved sword ever found in this part of China."

Also discovered among the dead were gold and bronze artifacts, along with elaborate silk gowns.

But the most startling discovery was that "most of those buried had been sacrificed to accompany their master into the afterlife," said Xu, a scholar at the Archaeology Institute of Jiangxi.

Some aristocrats arranged for the sacrifice of their servants, their concubines, or others closest to them upon their death so they could travel together into the next life, he said.

"At that time, some ruling elite believed that they could lead afterlives similar to their lives here on Earth," he explained.

The Jiangxi tomb is "one of the most important archaeological finds from this era in this part of China," he added.

Mass Human Sacrifice

The practice of human sacrifice is recorded in China's earliest writings, dating back as far as the Shang dynasty 4,000 years ago, experts say.

Warrior-kings at the time relied on diviners to communicate with ancestors and presented animal or human offerings to plead for victories in battle or for rains to end drought.

Such requests for otherworldly assistance have been preserved in pictographs carved into "oracle bones," which over the last century have been collected by archaeologists and museums across China.

"According to the pictographs archaeologists have been able to decipher, there were in the Shang era 37 categories of blood and food sacrifices," said Herbert Plutschow, an expert on China's Shang dynasty at UCLA.

Leaders depended on ritual warfare, sacrifice, and ancestor worship to legitimize their rule, and some forced their retinue of servants to follow them into death.

"The Chinese premodern state was built upon sacrifice," said Plutschow, "and no theory of Chinese statehood could ever be proposed without reference to sacrifice and sacrificial ideology."

But around the time the Jiangxi tomb was being built, the philosopher Confucius began denouncing human sacrifice and called for the practice to be banned, Xu said.

"Confucius spent a lifetime criticizing blood sacrifice," he said.

But the philosopher's views came too late to save those sacrificed in the Jiangxi tomb, Xu noted, and the Confucian code would take centuries to ultimately defeat the practice.

History of Sacrifice

Adrienne Mayor, a scholar on mythology and history at Stanford University, said human sacrifice has been praticed widely by various civilizations but became less common in many cultures at around the same time.

"Many cultures around the world practiced human sacrifice for many different purposes in antiquity, including the Chinese, Aztecs, Romans, Egyptians, Mongols, and Mayans," she said.

(Read related story: "Ancient Tomb Found in Mexico Reveals Mass Child Sacrifice" [June 12, 2007].)

Following history's "axial age," when sages including Confucius in China, Buddha in India, and Socrates in Greece "spoke out against the practice, human sacrifice became rare," she said.

"Most cultures eventually replaced living sacrificial victims with symbolic rituals."

In China, however, sacrifices continued into the early Ming Dynasty, which lasted from A.D. 1368 to 1644.

Emperor Yongle, who oversaw the design and construction of Beijing's Forbidden City six centuries ago, decreed that many of his imperial consorts be sacrificed to join him in the afterlife.

David Keightley, a specialist in Chinese history at University of California, Berkeley, said the practice underscores the importance of loyalty and duty in ancient China.

"The sacrificial offering of human beings suggests the degree to which ties of affection, obligation, or servitude were thought to be stronger than life itself," he said.

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