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Fifth-Century Remains May Be Evidence of Human Sacrifice in Ancient Korea

Two bodies were found under the walls of a castle, leading some experts to believe that they were sacrificed to ensure the building did not crumble

(Courtesy of the Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage)
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Ancient Korean folklore tells of the practice of “Inju”: a ritualistic human sacrifice that saw unfortunate victims buried under the foundations of buildings, to ensure that the structures would stand tall. Archaeologists now believe they have found the first physical evidence of this ritual. As the Korean Herald reports, the remains of two skeletons dating to the 5th century were recently discovered under the stone walls of a palace in South Korea.

Laid side-by-side, the bodies were found beneath the west walls of Wolseong Palace in Gyeongju, the former capital of Korea’s Silla Kingdom. According to the AFP, one skeleton had its head and arms turned toward the second body, which faced upward.

It isn’t clear how the victims died, though they do not seem to have been buried alive. "Judging from the fact that there are no signs of resistance when they were buried, they must have been buried when they were unconscious or dead," senior researcher Park Yoon-Jung tells the AFP.

Lee Jong-hun, of the Gyeongju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage (GNRICH), says that the bodies were “highly likely to have been buried after a ritual” and that the Inju legend might be based in fact, according to the Korean Herald.

The Silla dynasty rose to power in 668, when it unified the three kingdoms of ancient Korea, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Human sacrifice occurred in nearby regions during this period—the practice was part of Chinese royal burials, according Michael J. Seth’s A Concise History of Premodern Korea. But until recently there was no evidence of human sacrifice during the days Silla Kingdom.

And not all experts are sold on the GNRICH’s interpretation of its findings, as the Korean Herald reports. Choi Byung-hyun, a professor emeritus of archaeology at Soongsil University, tells local media that it’s too soon to say if the remains indicate that human sacrifice occurred in Korea’s past.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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