Evidence #16 | September 19, 2020

Sacrifices and Cannibalism

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Archaeological evidence from ancient America supports the Book of Mormon’s description of cannibalism and human sacrifice.

Human Sacrifice and Cannibalism in the Book of Mormon

Although human sacrifice may have been practiced in earlier times among Book of Mormon peoples,1 the first time it is specifically recorded is Mormon 4. While capturing the city Teancum, the Lamanites took “many prisoners both women and children, and did offer them up as sacrifices unto their idol gods” (Mormon 4:14). Years later, the Lamanites again invaded Nephite lands, and the Nephite “women and … children were again sacrificed unto idols” (v. 21). Another instance of women and children being captured, perhaps for ritual sacrifice, can be seen in Mormon’s second epistle to Moroni. Note that this account also features instances of cannibalism:

And now I write somewhat concerning the sufferings of this people. For according to the knowledge which I have received from Amoron, behold, the Lamanites have many prisoners, which they took from the tower of Sherrizah; and there were men, women, and children. And the husbands and fathers of those women and children they have slain; and they feed the women upon the flesh of their husbands, and the children upon the flesh of their fathers; and no water, save a little, do they give unto them. And notwithstanding this great abomination of the Lamanites, it doth not exceed that of our people in Moriantum. For behold, many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue—And after they had done this thing, they did murder them in a most cruel manner, torturing their bodies even unto death; and after they have done this, they devour their flesh like unto wild beasts, because of the hardness of their hearts; and they do it for a token of bravery. (Moroni 9:7–10)

Evidence of Human Sacrifice in Ancient America

Evidence of child sacrifice stretches back at least into early Olmec times (1600–1000 BC), where bone fragments from several newborn infants were discovered in a pond at Cerro el Manatí in Veracruz, Mexico that showed clear signs of being sacrificed and dismembered.2 Similarly, at the Maya site of Colha, Belize, thirty decapitated skulls were deposited in a pit dating to AD 800–850. The composition of the remains showed them to be ten women, ten men, and ten children (from ages six months to seven years).3 Recent research in Belize’s Midnight Terror Cave has produced 9,566 human bones, bone fragments, and teeth that were deposited over the last 1,500 years. A large portion of those bones were found to be from four to ten-year-old children, suggesting a growing trend of child sacrifice from the Classic (AD 200–1000) into the Post-classic period (AD 1000–1697).4

Midnight Terror Cave. Image via sciencealert.com

Purposes of Human Sacrifice in Ancient America

Children, in particular, were often sacrificed at times of drought.5 Children were sometimes sacrificed to honor a new king or as a means of increasing the status of the surviving ruler.6 They were also sacrificed as part of the burial ceremonies of rulers, so they might serve their leader in the afterlife.7 At a place called Cahokia, near St. Louis, the body of a ruler was found surrounded by 53 women who had been sacrificed.8 In Maya, Toltec, and Teotihuacan cultures, women and children were offered as sacrifices in a similar way. In some of these cases, it appears that the people being sacrificed had little connection to the dead leader.9

Sculpture representing human sacrifice from one of the ballcourts at El Tajín. Image and description via Wikipedia.org. 

Another reason for human sacrifices was to obtain war trophies from the victims’ body parts, a prevalent practice in pre-Columbian North, Central, and South America that often coincided with ritual cannibalism (see Moroni 9:8–10).10 Archaeological evidence of ritual cannibalism in Mesoamerica in relation to infant sacrifices has been suggested to date as far back as early Olmec times (1600–1000 BC).11 After studying human bones “from three sites, spread over 2000 years of Mexican prehistory,” one set of scholars concluded: “Based on the archaeological evidence, the distribution of human bones, and the indications of violence left on them, there can be little doubt that cannibalism and human sacrifice were long prevalent in ancient societies of Mexico.”12

During a time of war, like Mormon 4, crops were often destroyed, causing famine.13 In Mesoamerica, sacrificial victims were sometimes seen as nourishment for the gods.14 Children were seen as representative of certain types of water-associated gods. Their size imitated those gods, and their abundant crying was thought to bring rain and therefore increase their crop yield.15 As understood by modern Mesoamerican communities, there existed a “primordial contract” between mankind and the gods: “The earth agreed to endure cultivation and provide food for humans, only after God promised that men would feed the earth in turn [through the sacrifice of human bodies].”16 


There is a growing body of evidence that human sacrifice and acts of ritual cannibalism were widespread among ancient societies, including those found in ancient America. There is also evidence that such topics were known and discussed among Americans and Europeans in the early 19th century.17 How much exposure Joseph Smith personally may have had to these concepts, however, remains unexplored.

What seems clear is that the Book of Mormon’s description of cannibalism and of women and children being sacrificed unto idol gods is supported by early archaeology from Book of Mormon times, as well as from late ethnohistorical sources. It can also be concluded that whatever Joseph Smith may have heard or known about such practices in his day, he could not have known with any degree of certainty that they were so prevelant and stretched back so deep into American antiquity.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did the Lamanites Sacrifice Women and Children to Idols? (Mormon 4:14),” KnoWhy 229 (November 11, 2016).

Mosiah 20:12–13Alma 56:12Alma 58:30–31Alma 60:17Helaman 11:33Mormon 4:14, 21Moroni 9:7–1

Mosiah 20:12–13

Alma 56:12

Alma 58:30–31

Alma 60:17

Helaman 11:33

Mormon 4:14, 21

Moroni 9:7–1

  • 1 See Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 81–82; John A. Tvedtnes, “Human Sacrifice in the Book of Mormon,” Book of Mormon Research, online at bookofmormonresearch.org.
  • 2 Ortiz C. Ponciano and María del Carmen Rodríguez, “Olmec Ritual Behavior at El Manatí: A Sacred Space,” in Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica, ed. David C. Grove and Rosemary A. Joyce (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1999), 248–249.
  • 3 See Virginia Massey, “The Human Skeletal Remains from a Terminal Classic Skull Pit at Colha, Belize,” Papers of the Colha Project, Vol. 3, Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1989).
  • 4 See C. L. Kieffer Nail, “The Structural Violence of Maya Sacrifice: A Case Study of Ritualized Human Sacrifice at Midnight Terror Cave, Belize,” (Dissertation, The University of New Mexico, 2018).
  • 5 See A. G. Anda, V. Tielser, V. and P. Zabala, “Cenotes, espacios sagrados y la practica del sacrificio humano en Yucatan,” Los Investigadores de la Cultura Maya 12, Toma 2 (Campeche: Universidad Autónoma de Campeche, 2004), 228.
  • 6 See Traci Ardren, “Empowered Children in Classic Maya Sacrificial Rites,” Childhood in the Past: An International Journal 4, no. 1 (2011): 133–145; Gardner, Second Witness, 6:81; 4:249–250.
  • 7 See Lawrence Conrad, “The Middle Mississippian Cultures of the Central Illinois Valley,” in Cahokia and the Hinterlands: Middle Mississippian Cultures of the Midwest, ed. Thomas E. Emerson and R. Barry Lewis (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000), 130. See also John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 487. Sacrifices for similar reasons can also be found in the ancient Near East. See Ellen F. Morris, “Sacrifice for the State: First Dynasty Royal Funerals and the Rites at Macramallah’s Rectangle,” in Performing Death: Social Analyses of Funerary Traditions in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean, ed. Nicola Laneri (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago, 2007), 17; A. Jeffrey Spencer, Death in Ancient Egypt, 1st ed. (Westminster, UK: Penguin Books, 1982), 68, 139; Harriet Crawford, Sumer and the Sumerians, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 154.
  • 8 The most notable example of this dates to around AD 1000, but it may have been practiced well before this period in this area. See Timothy R. Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 88–93.
  • 9 See Carlos Serrano Sanchez, “Funerary Practices and Human Sacrifice in Teotihuacan Burials,” in Teotihuacan, Art from the City of the Gods, ed. Kathleen Berrin (San Francisco, CA: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 113–114; Vera Tiesler, New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society (New York, NY: Springer, 2007), 506. One possible reason why the Lamanites might have sacrificed the women and children of the city of Teancum was because a high-status Lamanite (or many high-status Lamanites) had died taking the city. This might have prompted the companions of these elite individuals to kill the women and children of the city to serve as wives and servants in the afterlife.
  • 10 See Richard J. Chacon and David H. Dye, eds., The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians (New York, NT: Springer, 2007); George Franklin Feldman, Cannibalism, Headhunting, and Human Sacrifice in North America: A History Forgotten (Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood & Co., 2008); William Christie Mac Leod, “Child sacrifice in North America, with a note on suttee,” Journal de la société des américanistes 23, no. 1 (1931): 127–138.
  • 11 See Ortiz C. Ponciano and María del Carmen Rodríguez, “Olmec Ritual Behavior at El Manatí: A Sacred Space,” in Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica, ed. David C. Grove and Rosemary A. Joyce (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1999), 225–254, esp. 248–249. Mormon stated that cannibalism took place after the Lamanites killed (presumably in some ritual or sacrificial manner) Nephite men. Specifically, “they feed the women upon the flesh of their husbands, and the children upon the flesh of their fathers” (Moroni 9:8). In 1609 explorer Samuel de Champlain witnessed the taking of war trophies by the Huron, who, after torturing a war captive, cut his body parts up and kept the scalp as a trophy. Similar to what Mormon described, the Hurons then gave pieces of the heart to his brother and the other prisoners for them to eat. See H. P. Biggar, ed., The Works of Samuel de Champlain, 6 vols. (Toronto: The Camplain Society, 1925), 2:102–103.
  • 12 Carmen Ma. Pijoan Aguadé and Josefina Mansilla Lory, “Evidence for Human Sacrifice, Bone Modification and Cannibalism in Ancient México,” in Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past, War and Society, Vol. 3, ed. Debra L. Martin and David W. Frayer (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach Publishers, 1997), 237.
  • 13 For example, a connection is directly made between war and famine in Alma 62:35.
  • 14 See Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, “Human Sacrifice and Divine Nourishment in Mesoamerica: The Iconography of Cacao on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala,” Ancient Mesoamerica 27, no. 2 (2016): 361–375.
  • 15 In ancient Mesoamerica, children were seen to be “magically effective in drawing rain.” Ardren, “Empowered Children,” 133–145. In the Maya area, excavations show large numbers of children being sacrificed to the Maya rain god, presumably to increase crop yield by petitioning the rains. See Bruce Bower, “Belize Cave Was Maya Child Sacrifice Site,” Science News, April 19, 2016. For similar traditions among the Aztecs, see Philip. P. Arnold, “Eating Landscape: Human Sacrifice and Sustenance in Aztec Mexico,” in Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes, ed. David Carrasco (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Press, 1991), 228. This seems to have been done during the time of the Book of Mormon. See Thomas Benjamin, The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 13.
  • 16 Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 71.
  • 17 See, for example, Feldman, Cannibalism, Headhunting, and Human Sacrifice; Rachel B. Herrmann, ed., To Feast on Us as Their Prey: Cannibalism and the Early Modern Atlantic (Fayetville, AR: The University of Arkansas, 2019).
Customs and Ceremonies
Sacrifices and Cannibalism
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