Monday, October 31, 2016
Human sacrifice was practiced throughout various cultures in history. Sacrifice was common until the development of new religions in Europe, and until the colonization of the Americas. A quick google search of human sacrifice and you will mostly find information about Aztec sacrifices, though they were not the only culture to use human sacrifice as part of their rituals. While movies depict sacrifice as part of ancient Rome or in the deep jungles of the Amazon, human sacrifice was practiced here in Florida up to the point of colonization by the Spanish.
The Calusa, were a group of indigenous peoples that inhabited Florida’s southwest coast. Calusa territory was widespread and included all of the modern day Charlotte and Lee counties. At the time the Spanish met the Calusa, they were estimated to have a population of 10,000, however this is speculative. They were known for their complex estuarine fisheries and 93% of the animals in their diet came from fish and shellfish. The Spanish described their society as being divided between nobles and commoners. The tribe was lead by a chief, a military leader, and a chief priest. The Calusa lived in large communal housing with Pedro Menéndez de Avilés describing the chief’s house as being large enough to comfortably hold 2,000 people.
There is a sizeable written record of the Calusa society that was created by Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a shipwreck survivor who lived amongst the Calusa for seventeen years. Fontaneda was found by Menéndez in 1566 and taken back to Spain were he wrote memoirs of his time amongst the Calusa. In his memoirs he describes the ritual human sacrifices performed by the tribe. When the child of a cacique or chief died, residents gave up a child to be sacrificed. When a chief died, his servants were sacrificed to join him in death. Later sacrifices seemed to only involve the Spanish invaders, and did not involve the death of any of the nobility. The Calusa constructed mounds were ceremonies were held, and it was recorded that the chief’s house was built on top of an earthwork mound.
When there is no written record to go by, how do archaeologists determine if human sacrifice or ritual killings were performed? Bioarchaeology allows for the analysis of markings left on bones to determine how an individual died, or injuries they sustained during their lifetime. The location of cut marks on anterior body surfaces of cervical vertebrae indicate the individual had their throat slit. Cut marks on the anterior thoracic region can indicate the victim had their chest cut open, which was sometimes done to access the heart. Trophy heads, which may or may not have involved ritual killing, have telltale skeletal modifications as well. The skulls of trophy heads have a perforation in the frontal bone, used to support a rope handle, and often the base of the skull is damaged. The Calusa were known for keeping the heads of Spanish invaders, however the documentation suggests that said heads were left under a tree. Bioarchaeologists around the world analyze skeletal remains to get a glimpse into the lives of the deceased and often provide us with evidence that fills in gaps in the written record.
While human sacrifice is a thing of the past, it may not be as distant as one is lead to believe from movies and TV shows. Human sacrifice occurred throughout the world at various times in our history and continues to live on through depictions in media. While the Aztecs seem to dominate human sacrifice in popular culture, it is important to know that they were not the only ones who employed human sacrifice in their rituals.
Written by FPAN Staff, Megan Liebold