The Sunghir Burial Site: Were these Two Children Sacrificed in a Form of Prehistoric Scapegoating?
One of the clearest signs of behavioral modernity in the archaeological record is the appearance of art and religion. Once we see indications of creative and speculative minds at work trying to depict their view of the cosmos, we can be certain that we are dealing with sentient beings very similar to modern Homo Sapiens. Religion, nonetheless, remains one of the most mysterious and elusive aspects of prehistoric societies.
There are, however, some archaeological sites that do give a clear insight into prehistoric religious practices by providing archaeological evidence of a rite that can be compared to documented religious practices today. Such is the case with Sunghir (Sungir), a site in Russia a couple of miles outside of the town of the same name. It consists of several burials dating to about 28,000 BP, which may be evidence of some sort of human sacrifice or offering.
Reconstructed head of one of the children that may have been sacrificed for a double burial in Sunghir, Russia. Source: The Pictorial Arts
Eight individuals have been found at the Sunghir burial site. Among the graves is a double burial consisting of a boy of about 12-14 years of age and a girl who is about 9-10 years old. They were covered in ochre and their grave goods included many beads made from mammoth ivory. This elaborate burial suggests the two children were important in their society.
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The skeletons and a depiction of what the grave may have originally looked like. (Libor Balák)
Studying Religion and Social Mores in Prehistoric Societies
The difficulty with studying the religion and social mores of pre-historic societies is that we do not have any written records to give us insight into the minds of these individuals, only relatively ambiguous artwork. Religious beliefs and social mores are not preserved in the archaeological record the same way as tools or buildings.
As a result, although we have a reasonably good understanding of prehistoric tool use from the archaeological record and ethnographic comparison with modern hunter-gatherers who still use them, archaeologists are comparatively uncertain of the religious beliefs and customs of prehistoric peoples. Since they leave no written records, we know nothing of the specifics of their religious beliefs, it can only be suggested that they had them.
What can be illuminated by the archaeological record, however, are practices that have modern parallels. Thus, although we don’t know why the prehistoric people living near Sunghir practiced human sacrifice, we can infer that they did based on the similarity between the archaeological record and the practices of known cultures who performed human sacrifice - such as the Maya or the Aztecs.
Illustration showing an Aztec skull rack. Códice Ramírez. (Public Domain)
Similar Sacrificial Practices
The double burial at Sunghir is similar to other sites, such as the Romito Cave in Italy. In the Romito Cave, a dwarf was buried with numerous similarly unusual grave goods. These burials stand out because of their grave goods and because of the unusual character of those being buried. The Romito Cave burial involved a dwarf and the Sunghir burial involved two children. Although this could simply be due to a high likelihood of dying before reaching adulthood in the Paleolithic, the unusual grave goods at the Sunghir burial site imply that there is more to the story than simply the tragic deaths of two children.
Although some human sacrifices included prisoners of war, as was the case with the Aztecs, human sacrifices in other cultures such as the ancient Maya were sometimes voluntary and it was often respected nobles who were sacrificed. Being sacrificed was probably considered a great honor in this case because they were acting to preserve the created order and the world as they knew it. The sacrifice victims were essentially heroes. It is possible that this is what is occurring with the Sunghir double burial. These two individuals were doing something considered noble by their society and were given valuable gifts as offerings to indicate that.
Reconstruction of what the children in the Sunghir double burial may have looked like. (wowavostok)
Earning Status in Hunter-Gatherer Societies
Another possibility is that it is not religion that is involved in the Sunghir double burial, but social status. Archaeologists have found abundant evidence for differences in status in the Paleolithic based on grave goods. While most of the graves are fairly simple, others are more elaborate and involve items that would have been harder to come by and thus were most likely prestige items for people of high status.
In most hunter-gatherer societies, status is earned rather than inherited. It is something that is gained as an individual shows skills, charisma, and value to his or her society. As a result, children in these societies generally have little status because they haven’t done enough to earn it.
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The fact that the two individuals buried were only children implies that there may have been something more than status involved, though one could argue that it is evidence of ascribed status. Ascribed status, however, is more likely in agricultural societies consisting of people who are tied to a specific land, allowing them to build a lineage and social status that is tied to land and origin rather than to their individual deeds.
There is little evidence for a sedentary lifestyle 28,000 ago and no evidence, so far, that agriculture was practiced before about 15,000 BP. As a result, earned status is more likely for Paleolithic societies - which leads to a greater possibility that the unusual nature of these burials was related to something in addition to status.
A representation of prehistoric farmers. (YouTube screenshot) Ascribed status is more likely in agricultural societies than hunter-gatherer groups in prehistory.
Were the Children Sacrificed as Scapegoats?
If the double burial at Sunghir is an example of human sacrifice, it has interesting implications for modern theories regarding the origin of human conflict. The anthropologist and philosopher Rene Girard believed that all societies resort to a form of scapegoating to reduce violence in their societies. If people can be convinced that someone is in some way the cause of violence, getting rid of that person or group or sacrificing them in some way, not necessarily in a literal sense, will appear to remove the cause of violence and restore harmony.
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Girard believed that human sacrifice was an especially literal expression of this process. The problems facing society from other people are said to be caused by things that can be solved through human sacrifice. Girard referred to this process as scapegoating and believed that it has been happening in some way or another since the dawn of the human species.
Hawaiian sacrifice, from Jacques Arago's account of Freycinet's travels around the world from 1817 to 1820. (Public Domain)
More research needs to be done to confirm that there was human sacrifice in the Paleolithic period, but if the Sunghir and other burial sites are really evidence of ritual human sacrifice, it would be archaeological evidence to support Girard’s central idea that this form of scapegoating has been practiced for most of human history - even going back to the point shortly after the emergence of Homo sapiens.
Top Image: Reconstructed heads of the children that may have been sacrificed for a double burial in Sunghir, Russia. Source: Mathilda’s Anthropology Blog.
By Caleb Strom
“Evidence From Ancient Graves Raises Questions About Ritual Human Sacrifice Among Hunter Gatherers In Europe.” Science Daily. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070529103507.htm
“Sungir (Russia): Upper Paleolithic Burial in the Russian Plain.” By K. Kris Hirst (2016). ThoughtCo. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/sungir-russia-upper-paleolithic-burial-172838
Formicola, Vincenzo, and Alexandra P. Buzhilova. "Double child burial from Sunghir (Russia): Pathology
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Girard, René. The scapegoat. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.