Ritual human sacrifice played a powerful role in the construction and maintenance of stratified societies, according to new research.
The more egalitarian the society, the less likely it was that a human being would be chosen to die for it; the more stratified and rigid, the more likely someone from the lower orders would be selected as a sacrificial victim, scientists from Australian and New Zealand report.
They analysed data and observations from 93 traditional cultures that flourished from Taiwan to Madagascar, and from New Zealand to Hawaii to Easter Island, to confirm the hypothesis that human sacrifice “stabilises social stratification once stratification has arisen, and promotes a shift to strictly inherited class systems.”The bottom line on human sacrifice (and for this researcher, for a killing to be considered human sacrifice, it has to be religiously motivated):
And they add, in their paper in Nature: “Whilst evolutionary theories of religion have focused on the functionality of prosocial and moral beliefs, our results reveal a darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies.”
Joseph Watts of the University of Auckland and colleagues acknowledge that human sacrifice featured in many early human societies: Germanic, Arab, Turkic, Inuit, African, Chinese and Japanese, and in North, Central and South America. But archaeological records cannot always distinguish between ritual human sacrifice and any other violent death.
So they focused on what they called the Austronesian cultures, because these have been well-studied, and share a common origin. These cultures spread from an ancestral homeland in Taiwan, across a range of environments from tiny atolls to continents, and evolved into small, egalitarian, family-based cultures and into highly complex political structures, distributed across a vast area, encompassing more than half the world’s longitude and a third of its latitude.
Religious beliefs were remarkably diverse, but the practice of human sacrifice – recorded in 43% of them - was widespread.
They identified 20 egalitarian societies, and found that human sacrifice had been practiced in just five of them. They identified 27 highly stratified societies, and found that 18 of them depended on ritual human sacrifice.