Human Sacrifice May Have Helped Shape Complex Societies

Religion — particularly the belief in an all-knowing and punitive god — has played an important role in the development of modern-day societies, but with it comes a darker side.

Many religions in ancient history have practiced the ritual of human sacrifice in the name of a supernatural entity, but it blurs the line between what is morally right, and what is accepted by a group of people. Such practices are known to have occurred in early "Arab, Turkic, Inuit, American, Germanic, African, Chinese, Japanese and Austronesian cultures."

An international group of researchers said the act of human sacrifice promoted highly-complex and hierarchical societies, sustaining inherited and established class systems. The upper-class may have co-opted human sacrifice as a "divinely-authorized" means of keeping people in line.

Seeing An Unpalatable Pattern

Researchers from Germany and Australia examined 93 traditional cultures and societies in Austronesia that share a family of languages, spanning from New Zealand to Taiwan, and from Easter Island to Madagascar.

The research team took into account the fact that there is a high overlap between religious and political sectors in most societies, as well as how divided or layered the society was. They designated societies as egalitarian, moderate, or highly-stratified.

After comparing dozens of societies, researchers found that human sacrifice as a ritual was more common among highly-stratified societies than in egalitarian ones. They acknowledged the fact that their findings reveal an unpalatable and graphic pattern.

How Human Sacrifice As A Ritual Contributed To Complex Societies

Researchers, led by psychologist Joseph Watts, found that the usual victims of human sacrifice were low status members of society such as slaves. On the other hand, the instigators were members of the elite status, including chiefs and priests.

"What we found is that human sacrifice stabilizes social stratification in general," Watts told The Christian Science Monitor. "There was generally a power difference between the perpetrator and the victim."

Human sacrifice may have been prompted by several reasons: the breach of a custom, the interment of an important leader or chief, and the "sanctification" of a newly-built boat or house, researchers said.

The list of human sacrificial methods is just as brutal and sadistic. It includes drowning, burning, strangulation, burial, bludgeoning, getting crushed under the newly-built canoe, being torn apart to pieces, getting rolled off the roof a house, and decapitation, researchers said.

Additionally, the research team found that although there were similarities between culture and languages between several societies, they had a wide range of religious observances and beliefs.

What do all these findings mean? It means that religion could be exploited as a tool for social control, experts said.

In fact, with a supernatural authority, the killings would seem justifiable, historian Davíd Carrasco said.

Jan Bremmer, a historian from Netherlands and editor of the book "The Strange World of Human Sacrifice", said the more stratified the societies were, the more likely the members were to practice such rituals for another reason.

He said societies with class systems were much larger than egalitarian ones, and it would make sense that smaller communities would not destroy "valuable human resources."

The study has a limitation though, Bremmer said. It simply marked a society as having evidence of ritual killings in the past, overlooking the specifics of how frequent and how religiously-motivated the killings were.

Meanwhile, the findings of Watts' study, which are published [PDF] in the journal Nature, is another attempt to comprehend how human sacrifices affected culture.

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