May 10, 2011

Sacrificial Female Slaves

In the June issue of Archaeometry, an article caught my eye: "Sex identification of slave sacrifice victims from Qin state tombs in the Spring and Autumn Period of China using ancient DNA" (Zhang et al. 2011). Sacrifice, slaves, and skeletons? Yup, I'm all over that.

There is a long history of human sacrifice, particularly of slaves, in various parts of the world - as in Western Europe (e.g., Green 1998), Egypt and the Mediterranean (e.g., Rives 1995), and the Americas (e.g., Klaus et al. 2010). The authors' geographical focus, however, is the Shaanxi province of China, where the practice of sacrificing people dates back several millennia. During the Spring and Autumn Period (roughly 770-476 BC), wars in the Qin state created prisoners and criminals, who were sold or given to the nobles as slaves. Some of these slaves seem to have been buried with their masters, whose identities have been the major focus of archaeologists in the past. There is unfortunately little archaeological evidence reported in this largely methodological article, but the authors note that slave sacrifices are identifiable based on the grave type: "The master with funerary objects was laid in a coffin in the main room of the tomb, while slave sacrifice victims were deposited haphazardly in small rooms in the side walls of the tombs" (p. 601; see their figure below). The slave burials, then, often contain disturbed, fragmentary, or incomplete skeletons, making osteological assessment of them difficult.

Fig. 2 from Zhang et al., A schematic illustration of the grave structure in the tomb with slave sacrifice victim M42.

In order to learn more about these supposed enslaved victims of sacrifice, the authors performed aDNA analysis - consisting of extraction of the ancient DNA, amplification of the HVR1 fragment, PCR amplification for the amelogenin gene, and polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (PAGE) (pp. 603-6) - on tooth samples from 8 individuals (from a total sample of 164 from the Qin State Cemetery), with the goal of figuring out the sex of these slave sacrifice victims. The authors found that 3 of the individuals were male, 2 were female, and 3 could not be conclusively identified. After the DNA testing, osteologists performed a standard morphometric analysis of the 8 individuals, blind to the aDNA results. Of the 5 individuals whose sex could be determined by aDNA, osteologists correctly estimated sex in 4 of the cases, with 1 individual coming up as indeterminate in sex.

Because of the little that is known about the characteristics - biological or cultural - of the slaves buried in their masters' tombs, this aDNA analysis of sex revealed something interesting. It had been assumed that only males were sacrificed because females were too important to the growth of the population (p. 610-11). The discovery that 2 out of 5 of the individuals whose sex could be determined were female leads the authors to conclude that perhaps those masters with sacrificed female slaves were of a higher social status (p. 611).

I don't often read articles on the bioarchaeology of the East; I find it difficult to critically examine researchers' results because I don't read Chinese and/or because I can't get access to supplementary publications. The Zhang et al. article is provocative in its assertion that these skeletons represent slaves who were sacrificed, but that assertion is taken as a given based on archaeological publications that I couldn't find access to or translations of. This lack (perhaps on my part) of information leads me to question the authors' statements such as, "Most of the slave sacrifice victims... died with their suffering reflected in the shape and contortions of their bodies, which has made it very difficult for archaeologists to obtain sex information directly using the morphometric sex identification method" (p. 601). The one schematic drawing of a supposed slave sacrifice grave (above) could just as easily reflect the later opening of the tomb for burial of another person in a flexed position. Editorializing about "suffering" without any data to back it up is poor osteological reporting, especially when that "suffering" is implied to be the reason osteologists cannot estimate sex from the skeletons.

It is interesting as well to see how well aDNA analysis to determine sex performs compared to morphological assessments. The authors don't report whether sex could be assessed morphologically from the 3 individuals whose DNA produced inconclusive results. I am quite surprised that, given the implied fragmentary nature of the skeletons, morphological analysis was on the nose 80% of the time and only 1 skeleton was indeterminate (rather than sexed wrong). This study represents a lot of time, effort, and money to show that aDNA analysis of sex is only slightly better than visual osteological techniques (at least in this case).

At any rate, it does seem interesting that the Qin nobles were equal opportunity slave sacrificers: they killed both men and women, or at least buried both men and women in niches above the main burial. I wish there had been more archaeological information in this fascinating article, and frankly I expected more archaeological context from an article in Archaeometry, but it was almost completely methodological. The article therefore raised a lot of questions about this burial practice in the Qin state that the authors were not in a position to answer... but did anyway.

H. Zhang, F. Liu, W. Liu, J. Du, X. Wu, X. Chen, & G. Liao (2011). Sex identification of slave sacrifice victims from Qin State tombs in the Spring and Autumn Period of China using ancient DNA Archaeometry : 10.1111/j.1475-4754.2010.00553.x

Other References:
  • Green, M. 1998. Humans as ritual victims in the later prehistory of Western Europe. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 17(2):169-89.
  • Klaus, H., J. Centurion, and M. Curo. 2010. Bioarchaeology of human sacrifice: violence, identity and the evolution of ritual killing at Cerro Cerrillos, Peru. Antiquity 84:1102-23.
  • Rives, J. 1995. Human sacrifice among pagans and Christians. Journal of Roman Studies 85:65-85.


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