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The Ultimate Sacrifice

Science  18 May 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6083, pp. 834-837
DOI: 10.1126/science.336.6083.834

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Summary

Using rigorous forensic and bioarchaeological methods, researchers have been able to reconstruct the last days and hours of victims of human sacrifice, and sometimes the victims' identities, testing controversial claims of human sacrifice. Human sacrifice took place at one time or another in just about every ancient civilization in which someone had the rank and power to decide who died, until the rise of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions that condemned it. Across cultures, most cases shared twin motivations: to please the gods, and to vividly assert and display rulers' power. For early states, whose rulers were consolidating power, ritual sacrifice seems to have been one way to discourage outside attacks and internal revolt by sowing fear. The cross-cultural data are beginning to give researchers an idea of key patterns in the origins, motivation, and methods of sacrifice.

  • * With reporting by Andrew Lawler.