Bones found on Mount Lykaion – where animal offerings to Zeus were also made – but some are urging caution over how to interpret the discovery
The discovery of a 3,000-year-old skeleton in Greece has excited archeologists, who believe that the finding may confirm one of the darkest legends of antiquity.
Greece’s culture ministry announced on Wednesday that a Greek-American team of researchers had discovered the skeleton of a teenager on the side of Mount Lykaion – known to be the site of animal sacrifices to Zeus.
“Much later, sources talk about human sacrifices taking place on Lykaion,” Anna Karapanagiotou, the head of the local archeological service, told a local municipal radio. “All this will be studied.”
Mount Lykaion was associated with human sacrifice by many ancient writers, including Plato, and while it may be too early to speculate on how the teenager died, the location adds a strong connection. “It nearly seems to good to be true,” said Dr Jan N Bremmer, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and an editor of The Strange World of Human Sacrifice.
Bremmer said that until now, most studies of human sacrifice in ancient Greece had concluded that it was probably fiction. While the ancient Israelites, Romans and Egyptians engaged in human sacrifice for religious purposes, 20th-century archaeologists had thought that the practice was not common among the Greeks.
Bremmer remained somewhat skeptical about the finding and questioned whether the location influenced the interpretation.
David Gilman Romano, professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona, who participated in the dig on Mount Lykaion said classical writers linked the remote peak with human sacrifice. According to legend, a young boy would be sacrificed with animals, before the human and animal meat was cooked and eaten. “Several ancient literary sources mention rumours that human sacrifice took place at the altar [of Zeus, located on the mountain’s southern peak] but up until a few weeks ago there has been no trace whatsoever of human bones discovered at the site,” said Romano.
“Whether it’s a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar … so it’s not a place where you would bury an individual,” he said. “It’s not a cemetery.”
He noted that the fact that the upper part of the skull was missing, while the body was laid among two lines of stones on an east-west axis, with stone slabs covering the pelvis was also interesting.
Bremmer said scholars tend to be fascinated by the prospect of human sacrifice in ancient Greece because it seems like a contradiction.
“On the one hand there’s this picture of Greece as the cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of democracy, of philosophy, of rational thinking – but on the other hand we have these cruel cruel myths,” he said.
The mountaintop in the Peloponnese region is the earliest known site where Zeus was worshipped and even without the possible human sacrifice element it was a place of slaughter. From at least the 16th century BC until around 300BC, tens of thousands of animals were killed there in the god’s honour.
Human presence at the site goes back more than 5,000 years. There is no sign yet that the cult is as old as that but it is unclear why people should otherwise choose to settle on the barren, exposed summit.
Zeus was god of the sky and thunder, who later became the leader of the classical Greek pantheon.
Pottery found with the human remains dates them to the 11th century BC, right at the end of the Mycenaean era, whose heroes were immortalised in Greek myth and Homer’s epics, and several of whose palaces have been excavated.
So far, only about 7% of the altar on Lykaion 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.”