History Files


Prehistoric Europe

Hunter-Gatherer Sacrifices?

Edited from Mathaba News, 12 June 2007

Archaeologists investigating graves from the Upper Paleolithic Period (about 26,000 to 8000 BC) uncovered several which indicated Europe's prehistoric hunter-gathers may have practiced human sacrifice.

What they found were pairs or even groups of people with rich burial offerings and decoration. Many of the remains were young or had deformities, such as dwarfism.

The diversity of the individuals buried together and the special treatment they received could be a sign of ritual killing, said Vincenzo Formicola of the University of Pisa, Italy.

"These findings point to the possibility that human sacrifices were part of the ritual activity of these populations," Formicola wrote in a recent edition of the journal Current Anthropology.

Most of the hunter-gatherers who lived in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic Period buried their dead. Their graves - numerous and usually filled with offerings such as beads and ivory - are considered a good source of information on what they thought about spirituality and the afterlife, Formicola said.

"All these multiple burials can hardly be the result of natural events ... (and) human sacrifices could represent an additional explanation," Formicola added.

Human sacrifices have never been apparent in the archaeological record of Upper Paleolithic Europe. They do appear much later among more complex ancient societies, such as the Egyptians. The new findings could mean the hunter-gatherers were more advanced than once thought.

"What (the data is) suggesting is that the Upper Paleolithic societies developed a complexity of interactions and a common system of beliefs, of symbols and of rituals which are unknown in small groups of modern foragers," said Formicola.



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