Recent archaeological findings in Europe have shed new light on the practice of ritual human sacrifice during the Neolithic period. Researchers have identified multiple cases of what appears to be ligature strangulation or positional asphyxia at ritual sites from approximately 5500 to 3500 BCE.

Analysis of these findings suggests that human sacrifice was an integral part of the socio-religious structure of some Neolithic societies, particularly prevalent at gathering centers and sites related to food security and agricultural cycles. The victims’ bodies were often deposited in pits or silos in a manner indicating violent and ritualized death.

Through forensic techniques and phylogenetic analysis, researchers have been able to trace the evolution of these practices over nearly two millennia, from the Early Neolithic in Central Europe to the Middle Neolithic in Southern Europe. These discoveries challenge established interpretations of the role of human sacrifice in Neolithic agrarian societies and underscore the importance of a transdisciplinary approach to understanding these complex traditions.

(A) Map of the western end of the Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux site. The black circles represent pits or silos (not all were chronologically contemporary). Trenches 69 and 70 are located in an area surrounded by trenches 2 and 3 (incomplete, with their southwestern part leveled). This area is perfectly aligned with sunrise at the summer solstice and sunset at the winter solstice. (B) Reconstruction of the area surrounding pits 69 and 70. (C) Reconstruction of the space at sunrise during the summer solstice with pit 69 intentionally off-center, possibly to allow sunlight to pass through during the solstice, allowing illumination of an officiator
(A) Map of the western end of the Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux site. The black circles represent pits or silos (not all were chronologically contemporary). Trenches 69 and 70 are located in an area surrounded by trenches 2 and 3 (incomplete, with their southwestern part leveled). This area is perfectly aligned with sunrise at the summer solstice and sunset at the winter solstice. (B) Reconstruction of the area surrounding pits 69 and 70. (C) Reconstruction of the space at sunrise during the summer solstice with pit 69 intentionally off-center, possibly to allow sunlight to pass through during the solstice, allowing illumination of an officiator. Credit: Bertrand Ludes et al.

In the context of European Neolithic, researchers have often interpreted these deaths as a form of servant sacrifice where ritual leaders killed subordinate individuals to accompany them in death.

However, an alternative view suggests that human sacrifice may have played a role in ideological integration within agrarian societies, rather than solely being a feature of hierarchical societies. Additionally, there have been suspicions that agrarian rituals during the European Neolithic would predominantly involve female participants.

One of the sites that has revealed particularly relevant evidence is Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux in the Rhone Valley, France, where the remains of three women were found in a highly unusual position.

Two of the women were found beneath the overhang of a well that appeared to have been built to resemble a storage silo. Their positions, with flexed legs and heads and necks wedged by fragments of millstones, suggest they may have died from positional asphyxia or “cardiac arrest due to prone restraint”.

(A) View taken from the top of the storage pit showing the three skeletons, with one individual in a central position (female 1) and the other two positioned under the wall overhang (female 2 and female 3). The photos were taken with a wide-angle lens; otherwise, all three individuals could not be captured in one shot (credit: A. Beeching). (B) Reconstruction of the remains, blocked under the overhang of the straw-lined storage pit wall (typical in storage pits). The centrally positioned female was separated from the other two by an element of perishable materials. (C) Finally, the storage pit was filled with stones, probably at a later time. (D) Detail view of the individual (female 3) in prone position with a box-shaped stone over the left half of her remains (white square)
(A) View taken from the top of the storage pit showing the three skeletons, with one individual in a central position (female 1) and the other two positioned under the wall overhang (female 2 and female 3). The photos were taken with a wide-angle lens; otherwise, all three individuals could not be captured in one shot (credit: A. Beeching). (B) Reconstruction of the remains, blocked under the overhang of the straw-lined storage pit wall (typical in storage pits). The centrally positioned female was separated from the other two by an element of perishable materials. (C) Finally, the storage pit was filled with stones, probably at a later time. (D) Detail view of the individual (female 3) in prone position with a box-shaped stone over the left half of her remains (white square). Credit: Bertrand Ludes et al.

These findings in Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux are not unique. A comprehensive analysis of archaeological literature has revealed 20 probable cases of ligature strangulation or positional asphyxia at sites dating from the Early to Middle Neolithic (5500-3500 BCE) in various regions of Europe.

Sites where these cases were found often included features such as large numbers of silos, pottery from distant sites, remains of sacrificed animals, and broken millstones, indicating they were gathering and ritual celebration places related to food security and agricultural cycles.

These findings raise important questions about transcultural ritual and religious phenomena that may have developed from the Early Neolithic to the end of the Middle Neolithic, before being replaced in certain areas by the megalithic phenomenon.

While many questions remain unanswered, these archaeological discoveries reveal a dark and surprising aspect of Neolithic societies, where human sacrifice appears to have played an integral role in structuring their belief systems and power practices.


Sources

Bertrand Ludes, Ameline Alcouffe, et al., A ritual murder shaped the Early and Middle Neolithic across Central and Southern Europe. Science Advances vol.10 no.15, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adl3374


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