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New evidence of ancient child sacrifice found from Bronze Age Mesopotamia

Remains of young people who were ritually sacrificed have been found from Bronze Age Mesopotamia.

New evidence of ancient child sacrifice found from Bronze Age Mesopotamia
Evidence of the trauma observed on the head of one of the skeletons [Credit: Zuhal Özel]
Led by Museum scientific associate Dr Brenna Hassett, a team examined burial practices at Başur Höyük, a Bronze Age cemetery in Turkey. It contains a series of individuals who were buried between 3100 and 2800 BCE.

The site dates to 500 years before the famous Royal Cemetery of Ur, a luxurious series of tombs that form the resting place of Mesopotamian rulers.

An excavation of Başur Höyük uncovered a large, coffin-like stone tomb that contained multiple burials, with an unprecedented number of high-status grave goods for the period and region.

In three graves were found the remains of at least 11 people, male and female, ranging from age 11 to young adults.

New evidence of ancient child sacrifice found from Bronze Age Mesopotamia
The excavation site in Turkey [Credit: Başur Höyük Research Project]
Several people were buried outside the tomb with elaborate ornaments and grave goods.

Brenna says, 'The burials are remarkable because of the youth of the individuals, the number that were buried and the large wealth of objects that were buried with them.

'Women and children in Mesopotamia were occasionally buried with grave goods, but they were normally personal belongings.

'There are various pieces of evidence which suggest that these young people did not die accidentally or naturally - rather they were sacrificed.'

Human sacrifice in the ancient Near East

The ancient Near East was made up of the region that now includes modern-day Iraq, as well as parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Kuwait. Its history begins from about 4,000 BCE.

New evidence of ancient child sacrifice found from Bronze Age Mesopotamia
The remains of at least 11 people, both male and female, ranging from age 11 to young adults, have been
uncovered in an excavation of three graves [Credit: Başur Höyük Research Project]
Much of this area formed Mesopotamia, a collection of cultures bonded by their writing systems and gods. It is often thought of as the cradle of Western civilisation.

Many early human societies like this one used human sacrifices as a tool as they got bigger and more complex.

Brenna says, 'Previously, the most well-known example of human sacrifice from this area is the monumental discovery of the Royal Cemetery of Ur, where hundreds of burials were identified as sacrifices.

'It has been suggested that practicing human sacrifice was one of the ways that complex civilizations like the one that rose up in Mesopotamia consolidated their power.

'This discovery moves the investigation 500 years earlier and more than 500 miles to the north.'

How do we know this was human sacrifice?

Two children were buried lying in the tomb, with eight other young people buried at their feet. They appear to have been carefully positioned, and adorned with valuable goods and elaborate decoration in a deliberate display of social value.

New evidence of ancient child sacrifice found from Bronze Age Mesopotamia
Several people had also been buried outside of the tomb and lay surrounded by elaborate ornaments and grave goods,
suggesting this was a ‘retainer’, or grave attendant, burial [Credit: Başur Höyük Research Project]
Although researchers are unable to confirm exactly how these people died, at least two of the retainers from the outside of the tomb show evidence of sharp force trauma including stabbing and cutting wounds, suggesting unnatural deaths.

In particular, one of the young adult males suffered trauma to his hip and head, and seems to have suffered a violent end, perhaps being stabbed in the hip and skull by a sharp point. The head wounds are similar to the reconstructions of skull trauma seen in the sacrificial burials at the Royal Cemetery of Ur.

Brenna says, 'It is unlikely that these children and young people were killed in a massacre or conflict. The careful positioning of the bodies and the evidence of violent death suggest that these burials fit the same pattern of human sacrifice seen at other sites in the region.

The burial has parallels with the elaborate burials from the Royal Cemetery of Ur.

Why were they sacrificed?

The burials show evidence of large political and social upheavals around this time, when early states were forming in southwest Asia.

New evidence of ancient child sacrifice found from Bronze Age Mesopotamia
A large cist tomb with the remains of eight skeletons in and around it [Credit: Başur Höyük Research Project]
Human sacrifice, the act of killing people for ritual purposes, is usually associated with hierarchical centralised societies.

It can be done to achieve various spiritual, political, martial or economic goals.

Because this period in Mesopotamia was a time of political upheaval, instability and crisis, Brenna thinks that sacrifices like this one were a way of controlling a city or state's population.

In the northernmost region, in the valleys of the upper Tigris river, the evidence from Başur Höyük shows that people were developing new ways of demonstrating their power. This ranged from outrageous displays of wealth like depositing of a fortune in bronze goods in a burial, to the ultimate deposit of sacrificed human lives.

New evidence of ancient child sacrifice found from Bronze Age Mesopotamia
More than 100 bronze spearheads retaining trace textiles from bundling were discovered distributed throughout
 the internal chamber of the cist tomb [Credit: Başur Höyük Research Project]
Başur Höyük sits on an important crossroads between metalworking cultures and the region known as Mesopotamia, often thought of as the cradle of western civilisation, inhabited by modern-day Iraq, as well as parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Kuwait.

Brenna says, 'This exciting discovery will change the way we look at the development of the world’s first states.'

In addition, excavations have revealed a further series of mysterious burials from the site, including a mass death pit containing at least fifty individuals buried simultaneously.

A new Arts and Humanities Research Council grant was awarded to Prof David Wengrow from UCL, Brenna, and the Museum's team of ancient DNA experts, Prof Ian Barnes and Dr Selina Brace, to investigate the very beginnings of civilisation as we know it.

Author: Katie Pavid | Source: Natural History Museum, London [June 28, 2018]


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  1. At the risk of coming off as an ethnic chauvinist, really, now. The world's FIRST "city states". I do not know time lines and ancient civilizations well enough to cite names, but really. The ENTIRE world, or just the "WEST"? Iran is in the 'west" for some purposes, and its the foreign eastern entity for other purposes. Just as Egypt is in Africa for some purposes, but for most there fields of study, it is NOT African. There is enough glory to go round, can't some other peoples and places have some it? The FIRST city state? You are going to make me have to get out MY books, and read some more as well. Was there anything anywhere being done by anybody between 3100 and 2800 BCE. I mean, they had to be trading with SOMEBODY. As thy say these days, "I'm just sayin'"...

  2. Anne here again. This is down and dirty, and no reputable scholar would quote Wiki, but, why not. Now this is what Wiki said:c. 3200 BC: Sumerian cuneiform writing system.[1]
    3200 BC: Newgrange built in Ireland.
    3200 BC: Cycladic culture in Greece
    3200 BC: Norte Chico civilization begins in Peru
    3200 BC: Rise of Proto-Elamite Civilization in Iran
    3100 BC: Skara Brae in Scotland
    3100 BC: First dynasty of Egypt
    c. 3000 BC: Egyptian calendar
    c. 3000 BC: Stonehenge construction begins. In its first version, it consisted of a circular ditch and bank, with 56 wooden posts.[2]
    c. 3000 BC: Cucuteni-Trypillian culture in Romania and the Ukraine
    3000 BC: Jiroft civilization begins in Iran
    3000 BC: First known use of papyrus by Egyptians
    2800 BC: Kot Diji phase of the Indus Valley Civilization begins
    2800 BC: Longshan culture in China
    2700 BC: Minoan Civilization ancient palace city Knossos reach 80,000 inhabitants
    2700 BC: Rise of Elam in Iran
    2700 BC: The Old Kingdom begins in Egypt
    do any of these count????


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