Thousands of War Captives Enslaved for Years Before Being Slain as Sacrifice in Prehistoric China
Some archaeologists in China have analyzed the makeup of elements in the bones in a prehistoric cemetery and say the people buried there were probably war captives who were forced into slavery before they were slain as sacrificial victims.
How the archaeologists, led by Christina Cheung of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, reached this conclusion about the devastated lives of so many people is kind of complicated.
The archaeological site of Yinxu, capital of the Shang Dynasty from 1300 to 1046 BC, lies about 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Beijing. The Yinxu site gives evidence of a development of great Chinese culture in the early Bronze Age, says a story about the latest research on the International Business Time website.
There was also the sacrifice of humans and animals during the Shang Dynasty. The practice was common. In fact, approximately 2,500 pits filled with the remains of sacrificial victims numbering in the thousands have been located.
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A Clever Dietary Analysis
This is where it gets complicated. Dr. Cheung and her colleagues, by analyzing isotopes in the bones and teeth of 68 victims, found they ate mostly millet. They were even able to determine that they moved to Yinxu in the years before they died.
This map shows the capitals and territory of the Shang Dynasty, as determined by archaeological explorations. (GNU Free Documentation License/ Drawing by Yu Ninjie )
The researchers compared the results of this analysis to the bones of 39 locals to determine the locals ate a much better diet of deer meat, wild fish, wheat and rice.
The researchers concluded Shang Dynasty officials kept the war captives alive for several years for use in slave labor because it wouldn’t have made sense to capture them, take them to Yinxu for a couple of days and then kill them.
But why would the Shang leaders do this? The paper concludes:
“This discovery has significant implications for understanding the various tactics used by the Shang kings to consolidate power over their subjects, including the display of violence through mass sacrificial rituals.”
Ch'eng Tang, the first emperor in the Shang dynasty ( Public Domain )
The abstract to a scholarly article about the findings in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology states:
Although oracle bone inscriptions from the site of Yinxu mentioned that many of these victims were war captives, little archaeological evidence could support or confirm this assertion. Using stable carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur isotope analysis, we reconstructed and compared the dietary practices of 68 sacrificial victims with those of 39 local residents from Yinxu.
In addition, for 30 of the sacrificial victims, δ 13C, δ 15N, and δ 34S [isotopes of these elements] values from two different bone elements per individual were compared to look for evidence of migration. Our results suggest that these sacrificial victims were likely not local, but moved to Yinxu and adopted the local diet for at least a few years before being killed. This discovery has significant implications for understanding the various tactics used by the Shang kings to consolidate power over their subjects, including the display of violence through mass sacrificial rituals.
The article adds: “The practice of ritual killing, using both human and animal subjects, was prevalent in early Bronze Age China.”
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Oracle bones with the first written Chinese symbols were used as a divining device for Shang dignitaries to check their actions. ( CC BY 2.0 )
One way archaeologists have determined that the victims of slavery and sacrifice were not local was from oracle bone and turtle-shell inscriptions. Some of these writings stated that many of the sacrifice victims were war captives from elsewhere. But researchers had not been able to verify this until this study.
Top image: A reconstruction of a burial site from prehistoric China. In Yinxu, about 2,500 pits filled with remains of sacrificial victims have been found in addition to other cemeteries were elites and other locals were buried. (Creative Commons/ Daderot photo )
By Mark Miller