Decapitated, kneeling skeleton found in a pit in China linked to ancient ritual sacrifice

The undated file photo shows human bones remains in kneeling position unearthed from the Chaizhuang site in Jiyuan, central China's Henan Province. Archaeologists have discovered human bones in kneeling position in a sacrificial pit of ruins dating back to the late Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1046 BC) in central China's Henan Province, which proves a glyph in oracle bone inscription of the burial.
This headless, kneeling skeleton was found in an ancient burial pit n central China's Henan province. (Image credit: Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo)

Thousands of years ago in ancient China, a ritual decapitation left the headless remains of a person on their knees at the bottom of a pit. 

Researchers recently uncovered the still-kneeling skeleton at a site in central China's Henan province; they estimated that the person was sacrificed around the time of the late Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C. to 1046 B.C.), Chinese news agency Xinhua Net reported on April 16. 

The skeleton was aligned facing north, with its hands crossed and secured in front of the body, Xinhua Net reported.

Related: 25 cultures that practiced human sacrifice

In 2019, archaeologists began digging up the Chaizhuang site, which is thought to cover approximately 0.1 square miles (0.2 square kilometers). To date, nearly 65,000 square feet (6,000 square meters) have been excavated, revealing: remnants of fireworks; artifacts carved from mussel shells and jade; pottery and bones; and large structures such as roads, wells and houses, according to Xinhua Net.

Previous archaeological discoveries hint that ritual human sacrifice was common in China during the Shang Dynasty. More than 13,000 people were sacrificed in the Shang capital city of Yinxu over a span of about 200 years, and sometimes dozens of people were ritually slaughtered at once, Live Science previously reported. In one case, at least 339 bodies were found in a single sacrificial pit.

Details of human sacrifices during this period were recorded as carvings on artifacts known as oracle bones. These flat pieces of animal bone or turtle shell bear the earliest evidence of writing in China; after questions were carved on the oracle bones, they were heated with metal sticks until they cracked. Diviners would then interpret the patterns in the cracks to find answers to their questions, according to the British Library.

One such relic from Chaizhuang held an inscribed glyph — "Kan" — that researchers recognized from another site in Yinxu; the character described a method of placing humans and animals in a pit in an upright posture in preparation for sacrifice, and may reference the newly discovered kneeling, headless skeleton, China News reported

Most of the skeletons linked to ancient ritual sacrifice in China have been found lying down in burial pits. The discovery of a kneeling victim in combination with a glyph describing upright placement of sacrifices, suggests that this kneeling burial posture was likely more common in ancient China than previously thought, according to China Daily.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.  Her book "Rise of the Zombie Bugs: The Surprising Science of Parasitic Mind Control" will be published in spring 2025 by Johns Hopkins University Press.