Did ancient Greeks practice ritual murder?

A mountaintop discovery of a 3,000-year-old skeleton in Greece could confirm a dark rumor mentioned by Plato and other ancient writers.

Greek Culture Ministry/AP
This undated photo released Wednesday by the Greek Culture Ministry shows the 11th century B.C. skeleton of a teenager excavated recently at Mount Lykaion in the southern Peloponnese region of Greece, the mountaintop sanctuary of Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods.

In Greek mythology, it was said humans were sacrificed to Zeus at the king of the gods’ birthplace on top of Mount Lykaion. In one tale, the king Lycaon turns into a wolf after he sacrifices a baby on the altar there. In another tale, a boy is sacrificed with animals, and all the meat is cooked together. Anyone who eats human flesh in the stew becomes a wolf for nine years.

While the ancient traveler Pausanias and the philosopher Plato had written about these dark acts, archaeologists had no proof to show these nefarious practices were anything more than legend. But the discovery of 3,000-year-old remains in an altar on the Peloponnese mountain has some wondering otherwise.

A team of Greek and American excavators have uncovered the skeleton of what they believe to be a teenage boy in the heart of a large, wide altar underneath a millennium worth of ashes from sacrificed animals, announced Greece’s Culture Ministry in a statement Wednesday.

Though the excavators have said it’s too early to speculate how the adolescent boy died, the discovery casts doubt on the belief human sacrifice was only legend in ancient Greece, the cradle of civilization and the birthplace of democracy.

Until now, most studies of human sacrifice in ancient Greece concluded it was probably fiction, Jan Bremmer, a professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and an editor of "The Strange World of Human Sacrifice," told The Guardian. He said that while the ancient Israelites, Romans, and Egyptians performed human sacrifice for religious purposes, modern-day archaeologists have long held that the Greeks did not.

"It nearly seems to good to be true," Dr. Bremmer said, although he questioned if the location of the findings could affect interpretations.

Excavator David Gilman Romano, a professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona, noted that up until a few weeks ago, there was no evidence of human sacrifice at the site besides several ancient literary sources mentioning rumors of it.

"There been no trace whatsoever of human bones discovered at the site," Dr. Romano said.

"Whether it's a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar ... so it's not a place where you would bury an individual. It's not a cemetery," he told The Associated Press. He added that an upper part of the skull was missing, while the body was laid between two lines of stones on an east-west axis, with stone slabs covering the pelvis.

The Greek-American team started excavating the ash altar in 2007. The mountain is the earliest place Zeus is known to have been worshipped. In fact, excavators discovered in 2008 that human presence on the mountain dates back at least 5,000 years; 1,000 years before the Greeks began to worship the god of the weather and sky. Excavators have also found the remains of drinking cups, animal and human figurines, vases, coins, and ashes of what is believed to be the ashes of thousands of animals sacrificed to Zeus, according to The Guardian.

Romano said only about 7 percent of the altar has been excavated.

"We have a number of years of future excavation to go," Romano said. "We don't know if we are going to find more human burials or not."

As archeologists search for answers, Bremmer and others have said some ancient societies practiced human sacrifice to reinforce social stratification. A study published in the journal Nature in April found that in 93 traditional Austronesian societies, ritual homicide helped build and maintain social stratification.  

Davíd Carrassco, a historian at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. and author of the book "City of Sacrifice," who was not part of this study but who's own work has found a similar link, told The Christian Science Monitor that the power difference between the perpetrator and victim enabled the public to accept these grisly acts. With supernatural authority behind the killings, it might seem justifiable, he explained in a phone interview with the Monitor.

"These ritual, religiously motivated homicides took many forms," wrote the Monitor's Eva Botkin-Kowacki. "They could be rites related to food sources, a major natural disaster, a death of a ruler, punishment for violations of social rules, or other events."

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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