We all know the ancients used to sacrifice people. Some practices, like the Aztec removal of a victim’s heart, are today infamous. But this barely scratches the surface of the gruesome rituals our ancestors used to perform. Over the past few years, a number of important discoveries have shown our forebears were even creepier than we thought.
10. The Hand-Decorated Skull of Ancient Brazil
Ritual decapitation was a gruesome fact of life in the New World. Warriors in South America would display their victims’ severed heads as a warning to others, and entire walls of skulls have been found in old Aztec areas. In 2015, though, scientists discovered one case of exceptional brutality. In ancient Brazil, a man had been decapitated and then had his severed head decorated with amputated hands.
The remains were found in a part of Brazil called Lagoa Santa which is known for archaeological discoveries. Even so, this find was disturbingly unique. At some point 9,000 years ago, a local tribe cut off someone’s head, then buried their skull along with a pair of severed hands. The left hand was attached to the right side of the face and buried pointing upwards; the right one was attached to the left side and buried pointing down. No one knows why this was done or what it might mean. All we can say for sure is that the victim was a local. Chemical analysis shows it was likely a member of the tribe that killed him. What his crime was, or even if he’d committed one, is a question we’ll likely never know the answer to.
9. A Pit of Severed Hands from Ancient Egypt
Speaking of severed hands, in 2012 researchers discovered something that went beyond simple archaeology and straight into horror movie territory. While digging around an ancient Egyptian palace, they stumbled across a series of four pits, each looking like something out of a Saw sequel. At the bottom of each, buried under heaps of earth, lay a pile of human hands.
The hands numbered sixteen in all. Each was a right hand. Each was large. Each was male. It was a grisly, baffling discovery, all the more so because there was seemingly no reason for it. Why would anyone want to keep a collection of severed hands? Then at last, researchers hit upon a plausible answer: the hands all came from enemy warriors.
In ancient Egypt, a warrior’s hand was the symbol of his strength. It was his source of power, his essential life force. By ritually cutting off his hand and leaving it as an offering, the Egyptian forces were basically destroying the warrior side of his personality. In return, they would collect gold for each hand chopped off. It was almost like a partial sacrifice – one that worked on a gruesome symbolic level rather than a deadly, literal one.
8. Mass Female Sacrifice in Ancient China
When we think of ancient China, most of us probably picture dragons and pagodas and other horrendous clichés. Very few of us would automatically think of human sacrifice, especially not practiced on a grand scale. Yet the ancient Chinese were more than happy to send dozens of human offerings up to their gods, especially when those offerings happened to be women.
At the Shimao Ruins in the Shaanxi Province, scientists recently made a discovery that would put anyone but the most-dedicated ogre off their lunch. The skulls of 80 women had been used to build the city’s walls, suggesting they were first sacrificed brutally then repurposed as building materials. Scientists believe they were all likely killed in a single brutal ritual, to inaugurate the construction of the city some 4,300 years ago.
What creepiest of all about this is that China was relatively advanced even by this point. The much-mythologized Xia Dynasty was in full swing, while most of Europe was still inhabited by people who lived in huts. Yet even at this comparatively-advanced point, human sacrifice evidently still existed on a massive scale.
7. Dismemberment in Bronze Age England
An obscure corner of Kent in England, Thanet is more remarkable for its controversial modern politics than its ancient history. At least, that used to be the case. Then in 2013, scientists discovered something almost unbearably creepy. On a remote farm an ancient sacrificial pit was uncovered. Its inhabitants had been violently dismembered and their remains mixed with those of farmyard animals.
It sounds like something from a particularly dark episode of Hannibal. But the Thanet victims were real people who died in a frighteningly gruesome way. One man was found dismembered in a sack along with a cow’s foot. Two children were likewise uncovered chopped into pieces with a cow’s head among their remains. Slaughtered lambs also decorated other parts of the pit, alongside fragments of human skeletons.
Whatever motivated these sacrifices is unclear, as is the ritual mixing in of animal remains. Somehow, that sense of mystery only serves to make it even creepier.
6. A Minoan Skull-Shattering Sacrifice
If you thought the animal-human mixing of the Thanet pits was unpleasant, wait until you hear about a recent discovery in Crete. At the ancient Minoan site of Kydonia, the remains of human girl were found with her skull smashed open and fragments of bone strewn around. Around her were piles and piles of discarded animal carcasses.
At this stage, the death has not been confirmed as an act of sacrifice. However, it certainly bears all the hallmarks. The young girl – likely a virgin – had her head smashed in with a heavy blow, before being cast into a pit of dead animals, all bearing identical causes of death. Their bones were then all mixed in together before being buried under a heavy stone slab.
Such killings were not completely uncommon at the time. Local legend tells of Eulimene, daughter of Kydon, being sacrificed as a virgin to honor the country’s heroes. Whether these are her remains or not we can only speculate.
5. The South Korean Man Buried With His Noblewoman
The era when your boss could reasonably expect you to buried with him when he died is (thankfully) over. Yet we keep on digging up remnants of that time. Usually, those entombed with their betters were slaves or warriors, kept in a different burial chamber to guard or serve their master in the next life. In one South Korean case, though, things have proved to be a little different. Archaeologists recently found the body of a man who’d been sacrificed and buried alongside a noblewoman.
What’s unusual about this is that he was lying right alongside her. However, the lack of possessions conceivably belonging to him in the tomb meant he couldn’t have been anyone of note – strongly suggesting he was a sacrifice victim. The reasonable explanation is that he was either a very loyal servant, or else the woman’s lover. If that’s the case, it raises some terrifying questions. Like: how would you feel, knowing that the moment your girlfriend died you would be thrown into a pit and buried alive with her? Would you ever be able to concentrate during sex? Feel free to not answer those particular questions in the comments.
4. Cannibalism and Dismemberment in Acolhua, Mexico
We all know the Aztecs. You’ve probably even read about their sacrifices before and can remember some of the (extremely) gory details. What you may not know is that their neighbors were even worse. The Acolhuas were like the Aztecs on steroids. As a recent discovery shows, when they captured some Conquistadors for sacrificing, what happened next would give Eli Roth’s wetmares.
Those who fell afoul of the Acolhuas could expect to be thrown into a tiny, cramped cell from which to await their bitter end. While they waited for their turn to come, they would be treated to the screams of the dying as priests sacrificed their fellow Conquistadors. Those who were killed were then dismembered and eaten, the flesh cleaved from their bones in what probably resembled a terrifying Satanic ritual. Even worse for some is what came afterwards. In one especially-grisly case, a woman who had been killed and chopped up had her flesh stripped off and her pelvis put up on public display. The severed head of a child was then forced inside the cavity, for reasons we’d really rather not think about.
3. The Mass-Murdering Maya Drought Cult
Imagine you’re living in the middle of a prolonged drought. The sun is blazing in the sky, and rainfall has been scarce for as long as you can remember. Now also imagine you’re living in the distant past, before such things as humanitarian aid even existed. You’d go a little bit loopy, right? That’s exactly what happened to the Maya. In the dying days of their civilization, they morphed into an insane drought cult that murdered dozens on the shores of a sacred lake in order to make it rain.
Located at Belize’s Cara Blanca pools, the remains of the Maya’s freaky water temple is a disquieting sight. It marks the point where the Maya simply went mad as their society collapsed around them. Victims were sacrificed and thrown into the water to appease the rain god Chaak, all to no avail. A prolonged period of drought led to the collapse of their civilization; something no amount of water-based sacrifices could stop.
2. Scotland’s Frankenstein Mummies
What could be scarier than accidentally stumbling across two mummified corpses in a remote ancient Scottish village? In 2012, scientists came up with an unexpected answer to that while studying the remains of two corpses from prehistoric Cladh Hallan. Their closer inspection revealed that the two were actually six. Someone, long ago, had gathered six bodies then chopped them up and mutilated them until they looked like only two people.
The discovery brought to mind Dr Frankenstein and his famously mismatched monster. Only this find was even more mysterious. Of the two bodies, one had been slowly assembled over a period of a few hundred years. The other had been hastily stitched together from three women who died at roughly the same time. The question on everybody’s lips, understandably, was: “why?”
Honestly? We don’t really know. Since plenty of sacrificial remains have been found in similar communities before, it seems likely they were killed ritually then reassembled in the weirdest way possible. However, they might not even be sacrifice victims at all. No-one really knows. Like many of the questions in this list, the answer is likely to remain a mystery.
1. The Midnight Terror Cave
When something is known in professional circles as the “midnight terror cave,” you know you’re in for a horrifying treat. Belize’s Mayan cave of the same name doesn’t disappoint. Inside is contained evidence of ancient children being sacrificed on an industrial scale.
The cave – discovered by accident when a looter fell into it – is filled with thousands upon thousands of human bones. Many show evidence of violent sacrifice; from cuts in the bone to the existence of a blue pigment the Maya used to donate human offerings. At least a quarter of these bones belonged to children. That wasn’t even the oddest part. The oddest part was that some of these children came from over 200 miles away.
In 9th century Central America, that was an astonishing distance to cover. In all likelihood it points to the existence of a massive, ancient human trafficking network, that existed specially to supply distant outposts with children to sacrifice. If that’s the case, then the Midnight Terror Cave has certainly earned its name.