Ancient China's Shang Dynasty Sacrificed Puppies, With Dogs That Had Been Buried Alive Discovered in Tombs

Puppy, Sacrifice
File photo: A stray puppy is pictured. Getty Images

If you lived and died in northeastern China during the reign of the Shang Dynasty, there's a chance you won't be spending eternity alone. Rich or poor, you may well have been buried with a four-legged friend—or even a human sacrifice.

Researchers reviewed literature on Shang Dynasty (1700 B.C.E. to 1027 B.C.E) and evaluated archaeological finds to learn more about the role of dogs in mortuary rituals. They published their findings in the journal Archaeological Research in Asia earlier this year.

The sacrifice of dogs, pigs, and eventually sheep, cattle and goats, dates back thousands of years in China. In one particularly gruesome discovery, researchers found the remains of 92 dogs, bound and placed in eight pits in the ancient city of Zhengzhou, Live Science noted. Scientists think some of the dogs were probably buried alive.

Probing archaeological literature and some 2,000 graves at a site called Xiaomintun in north-eastern China, researchers discovered roughly a third of graves contained not just human remains, but dead dogs. Most of these dogs, to the academics' surprise, were juveniles.

Researchers had speculated that dogs buried alongside humans in many tombs were likely pets. But if this was the case, they should have found dogs of all ages. The fact the dogs were so young suggests they were part of a ritual economy: reared for sacrifice, or simply strays plucked from the streets for burial.

Their young age may have made them cheaper than older dogs. The older a pup, the more money has been spent on its care, Angela Perri, a postdoctoral researcher in archaeology at Durham University in the U.K., told Scientific American. Perri was not involved in the study.

"Puppies, that sounds horrible," Roderick Campbell, one of the study authors, told Live Science. "Why would you sacrifice a cute little puppy? On the other hand, if it's not your puppy and if you're living in a society where you don't have the same assumptions of dogs and cuteness … it's a cheaper investment in the animal. You don't have to raise it yourself."

It's possible the dogs were a low-budget stand-in for people. Human sacrifice was practised at the time, with slaves and concubines often falling prey. King Wu Ding, who ruled some 3300 years ago, may have sacrificed up to 15,000 humans, Campbell, who is an archaeologist at New York University, told Scientific American.

Dogs, on the other hand, were found in the graves of the middle class, not just the wealthy. They were typically buried in small pits below the coffins of their human burial companions, possibly as a kind of guard for the afterlife. Unlike livestock, Campbell told Live Science, "They're much more in a liminal zone between what counts for people and what counts for non-people."

He added he wants to see more research on the lives of ordinary people at the time. "We've been focused on palaces and kings for pretty much 100 years in Shang studies," Campbell told Live Science. "I think that's given us a really warped perspective on that society. I would really like to see more work done on villages."

Roderick Campbell did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.