Ancient Mass Sacrifice, Riches Discovered in China Tomb

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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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