Evidence of human sacrifice, deliberate killings said to placate the gods, can be found all over the world. Artifacts and testimony show that ritualized execution happened in early Germanic, Arabic, Turkic, Inuit, American, Austronesian, African, Chinese, and Japanese societies. The apparent universality of the practice has always been a bit suspicious given the otherwise significant differences in the cultures that embraced it. If it was truly a religious practice, how did human sacrifice become a fundamental part of the pre-modern human condition? The answer, according to a new study out of the University of Auckland, Victoria University, and the Max Planck Institute, is economic.
The researchers behind the study argue that inequality, not faith, was behind human sacrifice. The argument here is that the social elite used human sacrifice to demoralize and frighten lower class citizens while reinforcing the social hierarchy. Essentially, we’re talking about The Hunger Games.
“Human sacrifice provided a particularly effective means of social control because it provided a supernatural justification for punishment,” said co-author Russell Gray in a statement. “Rulers, such as priests and chiefs, were often believed to be descended from gods and ritual human sacrifice was the ultimate demonstration of their power.”
In this study the researchers focused on “Austronesian” cultures — a term for a family of cultures that began in Taiwan and then spread west to Madagascar, east to Rapa Nui, and south to New Zealand. Because this region essentially covers over half of the world’s longitude and one-third of its latitude, the Max Planck Institute describes the area is a “natural laboratory for intercultural studies.” The focused on 93 Austronesian cultures, 40 of which have been documented in previous research as cultures that practiced ritualistic human killings.
The team analyzed historical data with a computational process called the Bayesian phylogenetic method to see if their hypothesis was correct — that human sacrifice was a means of social control. Using models that incorporated probability frequency analysis, they evaluated the 93 cultures and divided them into three groups: high, moderate, and low social stratification. Here, the researchers considered cultures without inherited differences in wealth as lacking social stratification — meaning they were more egalitarian.
They found that cultures with the highest levels of social stratification were the most likely to commit ritualistic human killings — 67 percent of the 40 cultures already identified as participatory. In the cultures with moderate stratification, 37 percent used human sacrifice to create a status quo. But the seemingly more equal societies still had some blood lust: At least 25 percent still killed people, you know, just in case.
“While 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 hierarchal societies,” the researchers wrote in Nature.
Analysis of ethnographic descriptions reveal what was to be expected: Sacrificial victims were typically of low status and the people sacrificing them were high status — like priests and chiefs. In Austronesian cultures, sacrifice could arise in a number of ways, where it was a breach of a cultural taboo, the funeral of an important chief, or the celebration for a new home. The methods of murder were expansive and gruesome, including: “Burning, drowning, strangulation, bludgeoning, burial, being crushed under a newly built canoe, being cut to pieces, as well as being rolled off the floor of a house and then decapitated.”