The Ancient and Modern Ecology of Execution

Ancient Arab swords. Note that some designs were more commonly used for decapitation, and other designs less so. Drawing: The Book of the Sword, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Chatto and Windus, London, 1884.
The following is reprinted from The Annals of Improbable Research. Click to enlarge images.

by Simcha Lev-Yadun, Department of Science Education—Biology, Faculty of Science and Science Education University of Haifa, Oranim, Tivon, Israel.
with instructive illustrations and historical documentation selected by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

The global energy crisis and other global changes have been studied from endless points of view. Here, I wish to discuss these matters, and also global ecology, from the point of view of the changing methods of executions, a point of view that has never been studied before.

Ancient Hebrews and Arab Innovations
The ancient Hebrews, living in the barren hill country of Judea and Samaria, executed people by stoning. The rocky, almost tree-less environment explains the use of this execution method. Arabs in the nearby sandy deserts of Saudi Arabia could not stone condemned people to death with sand particles, and instead used to decapitate them with a sword.

At least one form of impalement by stake is thought to be a Turkish innovation. Details here are from The Eastern Question: Its Facts and Fallacies, Malcolm MacColl, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1877.

Ancient Turkish and Asian Tropical Innovations

In the Near East, gravity, which comes free of charge, was also used for traditional execution. The Turks, for instance, used to execute by impaling people on a metal spear, a vivid practice known as “Chazuk.” A botanical parallel was in use in tropical regions of Asia, where instead of putting the bound condemned person on top of a spear, he was tied on top of a young palm or a bamboo. The plant shoot, in its search for light, grew quickly (a very relative term for the impaled one) through the condemned person. Such good plant growth was possible in the tropics, but not in the much more arid Near East. We see that when it was possible, biology was used, but when impossible, physics also served the purpose.

Impalement by bamboo growth originated in regions of Asia that could take advantage of the rapid growth of certain varieties of the bamboo plant. Details shown here are from Two Happy Years in Ceylon, Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming, Chatto and Windus, London, 1893. Be sure to read footnote 1 in this image. (below)

Ancient Roman Innovations
Still in the semi-arid Mediterranean, the Romans, who suffered from the consequences of severe deforestation, conserved good quality timber by the practice of crucifixion. They used wooden crosses repeatedly, and even forced the condemned people to carry the horizontal beam. An alternative tree-based method that saved the trees used in execution was to bend two trees till they were close and tie them with ropes so the ropes prevented them from straightening up. The condemned person was tied to the trees (an arm and a leg to each tree), the ropes holding the trees were cut. The end was quick, and again, there was no waste of timber. medieval European Innovations In then-wooded Medieval Europe, people were executed for centuries by the auto-de-fe, i.e., burnt alive on the stake. This spectacular procedure was carried on till the increasing depletion of the forests was recognized. Thus, in the 18th century, a new method, much friendlier to the environment, emerged: the guillotine. Taking into account the large number of people executed using the guillotine during the French Revolution, the continued use of auto-de-fe would probably have depleted the remaining forests of Western Europe.

The guillotine proved to be an environmentally friendly innovation in France. Drawing: History of the Guillotine, John Wilson Croker, John Murray, London, 1853.

North American Innovations
In a different wooded ecosystem, in North America, before the forests were cut down, condemned people were hanged on trees. Following the forest decline in many parts of the U.S., the electric chair, based on electricity produced from fossil oil or coal, was invented and used. Being industrialized, this method of execution suited the U.S. However, following the energy crisis of the 1970s, among the various measures to save energy, many of the U.S. states decided to use lethal injections.

“The end was quick,
and again, there was
no waste of timber.”

Conclusion: Execution and Conservation
We can therefore see that both regional ecology and environmental changes influenced the methods of execution in various countries and ecologies. In any case, a global trend of environmental conservation along with the exploitation of specific local resources is obvious in this colorful aspect of human culture.


This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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considering bamboo has been measured growing up to 3 inches a day I would guess a day or two at most until something gets pierced.. four at the outset.
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Bamboo execution is more torture then an execution, and does anyone know where there is there a record of how long it takes for the victim to die that way? Even Ling Chi is more merciful then that, even though you need someone as warped as Dexter to orchestrate it.
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