History

Did the Greeks Make Human Sacrifices to Zeus?

The site is known for animal sacrifices to Zeus, as well as for hosting athletic events every four years.

A team of US and Greek archaeologists has found a 3,100-year-old human burial at a sacrificial altar dedicated to Zeus, the supreme deity in Greek religion. The find was atop Mount Lykaion in the region of Greece known as Arcadia.

The skeleton probably belongs to a male adolescent and dates back to the 11th century B.C., at the the end of the Mycenaean era, whose heroes were immortalized in Homer's epics.

The finding may confirm one of the most gruesome legends of antiquity, which tells of a young boy sacrificed with animals. According to the grim tale, the human and animal meat was mixed and cooked together. Whoever ate the human meat would become a wolf for nine years. (SEE PHOTOS BELOW)

RELATED: Is This the Legendary Throne of Agamemnon?

Referred to in classical literature as Zeus's birthplace, Mount Lykaion is the earliest known site where the omnipotent god was worshiped. Tens of thousands of animals, mainly sheep and goats, were slaughtered in his honor.

In fact, the mountaintop altar is basically a mound made of the animals' ashes.

"A cult activity continued there uninterrupted for more than a thousand years, from the Mycenaean period down through the Hellenistic period," David Gilman Romano, of the University of Arizona, said.

Romano has been excavating the site since 2004 with a Greek-American archaeological team, the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project.

RELATED: Ancient Mass Graves Discovered in Greece

The human burial was unearthed from a trench close to a man-made platform of stones towards the center of the sacrificial altar.

Missing the skull, but conserving the jaw, the skeleton lay face-up, with an east-west orientation. A 5 foot-long border of field stones was found at each side of the burial, while stone slabs covered the pelvis area.

"Several ancient authors discuss human sacrifice at the ash altar of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion. But up until a few weeks ago there has been no trace whatsoever of human bones discovered at the site," Romano told Discovery News.

WATCH:Were Volcanoes Ever Used For Human Sacrifice?

The researchers do not yet know about the nature of death of the adolescent, but the prominent location of the burial within the sacrificial altar and its east-west orientation cannot be ignored.

"Whether it's a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar," Romano told The Associated Press.

"This is not a place where you would bury an individual. It's not a cemetery," he added.

Apart from the nefarious cults held at southern peak of the mountain, Lykaion is also famous for the Olympic-like athletic and religious festival which was held in the lower mountain meadow every four years during the fourth century BC.

RELATED: No, the Ancient Greeks Didn't Have Laptops

Some scholars even suggest the Lykaion games predate the most famous ones held at Olympia 22 miles away.

The games featured wrestling, boxing, horse racing, footraces, and a pentathlon, which included discus and javelin -- all performed in the nude.

At the meadow, the archaeologists made other major discoveries.

These include an impressive stone staircase at the top of a 4th century B.C. corridor, a large stone archway at the other end, presumably through which athletes would have descended towards the stadium, and the racecourse floor of the hippodrome, the only visible example in the Greek world.

Excavation will continue at the sanctuary until 2020.

Referred to in classical literature as Zeus's birthplace, Mount Lykaion is the earliest known site where the omnipotent god was worshipped. Tens of thousands of animals, mainly sheep and goats, were slaughtered in his honor for more than a thousand years, from the Mycenaean period until just after the time of Alexander the Great

The mountaintop altar is basically a mound made of the ashes of the animals.

Credit: Titus Frelinghuysen

A team of U.S. and Greek archaeologists unearthed a 3,100-year-old human burial from a trench close to a man-made platform of stones towards the center of the sacrificial altar.

Missing the skull, but conserving the jaw, the skeleton lay on its back with an east-west orientation.

Credit: Titus Frelinghuysen

Ceramic evidence found with the skeleton suggests the burial was made during the 11th century B.C., at the the end of the Mycenaean era, whose heroes were immortalized in Homer's epics.

Credit: Titus Frelinghuysen

A 5-foot-long border of field stones was found at each long side of the burial, while stone slabs covered the pelvis area.

The researchers do not yet know about the nature of death of the adolescent, yet the prominent location of the burial within the sacrificial altar and its east-west orientation is highly significant.

Credit: Titus Frelinghuysen

Apart from the nefarious cults held at southern peak of the mountain, Lykaion is also famous for the Olympic-like athletic and religious festival which was held in the lower mountain meadow every four years during the fourth century BC.

At the meadow, the archaeologists unearthed an impressive stone staircase at the top of a 4th century B.C. corridor, with a large stone archway at the other end. This is where athletes would have descended towards the stadium. At the base was the racecourse floor of the hippodrome, the only visible example in the Greek world.

Credit: David Gilman Romano