Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Ritual Human Sacrifices In Neolithic Europe

There are about twenty known instances across Neolithic Europe of women being ritually sacrificed in an astrologically aligned grave together with grindstones which were often destroyed after a harvest. Due to the difficulty of finding and properly classifying these sites, the authors acknowledge that 20 cases is an underestimate even among European remains recovered by archaeologists. This was done by dropping them in a pit which was either a repurposed grain storage pit or was designed to mimic one, alive with their throats tied to their ankles so that they eventually strangle themselves, a painful means of death still employed by the Italian mafia in modern times. While involuntary, it this is often seen as a form of symbolic suicide.

The earliest known instance of this practice, in Italy, predates agriculture, but all of the other instances of this practice in Europe arise in the context of the culture of the first farmers of Europe, prior to the metal ages or the migration of Indo-Europeans into the regions where it occurred. This practice may have been adopted by the first farmers of Europe from the European hunter-gathers whom they took perhaps a thousand years of co-existence in any one place to largely replace.

"Retainer sacrifice", often involving slaves or concubines, is well-attested from prehistoric times into the end of the pre-Christian era in Indo-European peoples. But the precise Neolithic human sacrifice associated with the harvest described in the new paper below does not appear to have carried over into the Indo-European metal age period in Europe. Indo-European religious practices superseded those of the first farmers of Europe.

The hunter-gather example, depicted in ancient artwork (shown in a figure below) that was not accompanied by remains, involved two sacrificed men and an excited group including several people wearing bird masks. The later sites include:
20 individuals (nine men, seven women, and four children) from 16 tombs or pits at 14 archaeological sites. The oldest sites (5400 to 4800 BCE) are from the Brno-Bohunice from Linear Pottery culture or linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture in the Czech Republic. The most recent (4000 to 3500 BCE) are the three individuals found at Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux in the Rhône Valley and one in Catalonia.

The numbers in brackets refer to the site numbers on the map. Blue dagger, male; red dagger, female; black dagger, undetermined; dagger in box, immature. PAL, Italian Paleolithic culture; LBK, Linearbandkeramik or linear pottery culture; VBQ I, square-mouthed vase culture (first phase); Münchs., Münchshofen culture; BG, Bischeim-Gatersleben transition; SF, Sepulcros de Fosa; Ch, Chassey culture. . . . B.P., before the present.
There were at least three distinct religious and burial cultures at the time in Europe, and this practice was restricted to first farmers of Europe with a pit tomb burial tradition. This practice was not shared by contemporaneous megalithic first farmers, like those associated with Stonehenge, or with contemporaneous first farmer cultures that buried people under large slabs in the Alps.

19th century European folklore describes similar practices attributed to the deep past, generally involving young women.

In an example initially discovered in 1985, that is the touchstone of a new paper just fully analyzing the find now, where three women's bodies were found, two younger women were ritually sacrificed (one with pieces of a broken grindstone on her back), and one woman who died in her fifties and was placed in the pit at the same time was interred in a covering in a non-sacrificial manner with a vase serving as a form of grave goods who would have been the only body visible from above. In the case of the two women who were sacrificed:

(D) Detailed view of the individual (woman 3) in a prone position with a box-shaped stone on the left half of her remains (white square). The upside-down grindstone fragment next to the box-shaped stone covers the head of the individual lying underneath (white circle). The scale displays 50 cm
fragments of grindstone were forcefully inserted during the positioning of the women, thus blocking the two bodies. . . . they could no longer move, and breathing became very difficult. . . . In such a position, death occurs relatively quickly, even if the victims were not drugged or beaten. The prone position induces inadequate ventilation and a decrease in the blood volume pumped by the heart, which can lead to pulseless electrical activity arrest and/or cardiac arrest by asystole. This diagnosis, formerly known as positional asphyxia, could now be better defined as “prone restraint cardiac arrest.” . . . cervical compression is an aggravating factor, as is obstruction of the nose and mouth. The . . . position of the lower limbs of woman 3 . . . suggests a potential case of homicidal ligature strangulation. . . . the woman would have been on her abdomen with a ligature attached to her ankles and neck. The fact that the woman was obstructed by grindstones and the overhang of the storage pit, coupled with . . . a tie connecting her ankles to her neck, supports the hypothesis of a deposit while she was still alive. 
The sacrificial pits would have been under an oval shaped structure made of perishable materials at the time of the sacrifice.

The paper and its abstract are as follows:
In the Rhône Valley’s Middle Neolithic gathering site of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux (France), the positioning of two females within a structure aligned with the solstices is atypical. Their placement (back and prone) under the overhang of a silo in front of a third in a central position suggests a ritualized form of homicidal ligature strangulation. The first occurrence dates back to the Mesolithic, and it is from the Early Neolithic of Central Europe that the practice expands, becoming a sacrificial rite associated with an agricultural context in the Middle Neolithic. Examining 20 cases from 14 sites spanning nearly two millennia from Eastern Europe to Catalonia reveals the evolution of this ritual murder practice.

The introduction to the paper provides useful context:
The topic of human sacrifice, its significance in understanding human societies, and its archaeological study are subjects of active debate and interest. The debate around this issue has sparked lively discussions across various fields, including the humanities, as well as social and ecological sciences. In the context of the Neolithic period in Europe, scholars have been particularly intrigued by the concept of human sacrifice. The prevailing archaeological interpretation of human sacrifice during this era, influenced by the social control hypothesis, often sees it as a form of retainer sacrifice, where officiants killed enslaved people, servants, relatives, wives, concubines, or others to accompany their masters, social superiors, or relatives into the afterlife. An alternative viewpoint suggests that human sacrifice might have played a role in ideological integration within agrarian societies rather than being solely a feature of hierarchical societies. Moreover, there has long been suspicion of agricultural rituals predominantly involving female participants during the European Neolithic. One of the earliest signs of agrarian rites could be in the ritual destruction of grindstones––a symbol of agriculture and harvest—which is a tradition that may have been especially widespread in the Mediterranean region; in other sites, the remains of fauna are notable, with notable sacrifices of dogs and bovids. We should note that human sacrifice to obtain abundant harvests is not an exceptional occurrence in farming societies and is particularly well documented for specific historical periods. In some well-documented cases, the breakdown by sex and age of the individuals sacrificed shows that, depending on the case, they could have been children, young women, or even adults. In Europe, particularly in Central Europe, there were still abundant traces of such sacrifices (especially of young women) in folklore in the 19th century, and this was the source of one of the most famous writings by J. G. Frazer, one of the fathers of religious anthropology. 
The principal challenge in archeology, especially in prehistory where written records are absent, is distinguishing ritual sacrifice from other forms of ritualized violence. To investigate formal sacrifice, defined as the killing of humans for ritual purposes, researchers seek recurrent patterns of behavior that deviate from the norm and that archeologists can hypothesize as sacrificial. The examination of “deviant burials”, i.e., those that differ from conventional burial practices for a specific population, along with methods of execution becomes essential. Several criteria for exploring the hypothesis of human sacrifices have been established, including indicators of violent death, unusual body positions or burial patterns, multiple concurrent burials, hierarchically related body placements, the inclusion of individuals with or instead of offerings, the distinctive arrangement of individuals, and demographic irregularities. The challenge lies in determining the threshold for classifying a burial as atypical, similar to identifying instances of violent death when no obvious signs of lethal trauma are present on skeletal remains. The postulation of human sacrifice emerges when human remains exhibit indicators of a violent demise and appear within contexts deviating from established patterns typical of interred bodies. These contexts encompass scenarios in which an individual subjected to violence is not laid to rest within the confines of a conventional burial site, and their treatment differs from the customary rites accorded to the deceased. Archaeological records most robustly support sacrificial practices when a substantial dataset exhibits a recurring constellation of distinct characteristics. Moreover, when we observe a recurring pattern of several diagnostic traits over centuries, and when there is an absence of individuals accompanied by prestige objects, the hypotheses developed favor ritual sacrifices more than retainer sacrifices
Within the Rhône Valley at the end of the Middle Neolithic period—in this region, the Middle Neolithic is between 4250 and 3600/3500 Before Common Era (BCE)—expansive sites spanning several hectares are arranged in a distinct pattern of land use and management. These sites exhibit a wealth of features, including numerous silos, numerous broken grindstones, ceramics sourced from distances spanning several tens of kilometers, animal remains indicative of communal meals, instances of animal sacrifices, and graves containing individuals found in configurations reminiscent of silos or resembling such structures. While the notion of abandoned villages has been proposed for similar sites in proximity to the Mediterranean, the discovery at Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, where two women were found in an unconventional placement beneath the overhang of a storage pit, positioned in front of a third body (a woman) in a central location, suggests a ritualized form of asphyxiation that may even imply a method of homicidal ligature strangulation. Given that the silo containing these bodies is part of an architectural orientation toward solstices, we lean toward the hypothesis that these sites, at a certain juncture in their history, functioned as collective gathering places where food security and the agricultural cycle were venerated, particularly through the practice of human sacrifices
Homicidal ligature strangulation involves a ritualized form of ligature strangulation, characterized by its cruelty, in which, in its classical way, the victim, in a prone position, is bound at the throat and ankles with a rope. Self-strangulation becomes inevitable due to the forced position of the legs. Currently, this torture, known as incaprettamento, is associated with the Italian Mafia and is sometimes used to punish persons perceived as traitors. In various circumstances, killing people with homicidal ligature strangulation has been interpreted as a form of symbolic suicide, as it is the individual who, by strangling themselves, causes their death. The earliest recorded instance of homicidal ligature strangulation dates back to the Italian Mesolithic era, possibly suggesting a highly ancient origin within ceremonial sites (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Mesolithic rock art scene from the Addaura Cave.

According to J. Guilaine, this scene features eleven humans and a deer, which, given its position, is most likely deceased (sacrificed?). Nine of the humans are standing (in gray); several of them are adorned with bird-like beak faces, resembling masks, and they all appear highly animated. The artist aimed to convey a sense of general excitement. They encircle two central humans (highlighted by us in black), in a prone position. They lie on their abdomens with their legs folded beneath them; one has their arms hanging, while the other has them folded behind their neck. There is a rope stretched between their ankles and neck. Male genitalia in the two figures are very clearly depicted, as if erect, and the figure underneath is shown with their tongue hanging out; these two signs are found in cases of strangulation or hanging.
Considering the observation of the Rhône Valley and the Mesolithic case, we have investigated, as a basis for research and insights into the socio-religious structuring of a segment of the European Neolithic, similar cases on the Ancient (5500 to 4900 BCE) and Middle Neolithic periods (4250 to 3600/3550 BCE) in Central and Western Europe. This study examines 20 cases spanning nearly 2000 years from Eastern Europe to Catalonia. These cases originated from archaeological sites on alluvial plains, either on major rivers (Danube, Oder, Rhine, Pô) or on coastal rivers on the Mediterranean coast with a distribution quite different from that of the megalithic sites of the same period. In these regions, funeral sites are mostly represented by repurposed storage pits or pits dug like silos or ritual silos, where archeologists found one or more individuals or isolated bones. The deposit of human remains in circular pits was widespread throughout the Carpathian Basin, the Rhine Valley, the Rhône Valley, southern France, southwestern France, Emilia, Italy, and the coast of Catalonia. In these sites, while some skeletons are in a flexed position—a standard position for this period—others are placed in atypical positions or buried unconventionally, which does not conform to the overall pattern. If, in some cases, deaths by stabbing or arrowheads have sometimes been described and if sometimes, researchers interpret these atypical positions as if the individuals had been unceremoniously thrown into the pits, in most cases, the cause of death is unknown, even if one hypothesizes that these individuals in atypical positions are cases of retainer sacrifice. These documented cases underscore the possible development of sacrificial practices in various regions and contexts. Particularly noteworthy are instances of homicidal ligature strangulation found in ritual sites during the Neolithic period. These sites often included storage pits used for burials, occasionally accompanied by sacrificial offerings, broken grindstones, and isolated human remains. This investigation contributes valuable insights into the intricate nature of human sacrifice and ritualized violence during the European Neolithic, questioning established interpretations and highlighting the importance of thorough archaeological analysis for a nuanced understanding of these practices.


Ryan said...

Huge new IE paper from Lazaridis to read.

andrew said...

@Ryan Thanks for the heads up!