A study has found that human sacrifice helped shape complex, unequal societies. The researchers said that the ancient upper elites may have used the ritual as a means of keeping people in their rightful places.
In Austronesia, the sacrifice methods varied among cultures, but the victims were usually captives and slaves from the lower class, while the instigators are the elite, such as priests and village chiefs.
Researchers also found that in these ancient cultures, there was a major overlapping of religious and political authorities. Many of these rituals were conducted in the name of a supernatural entity that people worshipped. This suggested that religion could have been exploited as an effective tool to control and keep people in their rightful classes in the social system.
"By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralize the underclass and instill fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control," said lead author Joseph Watts, a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland.
The researchers found that, in general, the human sacrifice rituals stabilized social stratification, which at that time, ranked people based on a strict hierarchy. According to co-author Russell Gray, the human sacrifice rituals provided societies with an effective tool to control people because they were linked to a "supernatural justification for punishment."
These religion-motivated homicides were performed during various events, including a natural disaster, a ruler's death, violation of social rules, food scarcity and abundance and others.
Findings showed that the more stratified the societies, the higher the chances that they practice human sacrifice rituals. Ancient egalitarian societies, wherein people were treated equally, were the least likely to practice rituals of sacrificing humans. These ancient social hierarchies gave birth to the class systems that still exist in the modern-day world.