Even leading scientists are surprised by the current prevalence of witchcraft beliefs, which should not be confused with the contemporary nature-based Wicca pagan religion that focuses on benevolence.
For example, when evolutionary anthropologist Ruth Mace of University College London and her team recently traveled to southwestern China to study the rural population there, witchcraft was hardly on their minds.
"Our original interest was to study cooperative networks between households," Mace told Seeker. "We were not expecting this factor to be especially widespread or important."
The researchers observed that among the Mosuo ethnic group, female heads of households and their daughters are called zhu when others believe that they have magical powers and engage in food poisoning.
"We were surprised it was 13 percent of households in our study site that were labeled with this tag," added Mace. "And we were surprised that it generated such clear assortment within the population on social networks."
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Prior research on witchcraft, such as that conducted by the late British anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1902–1973), argued that fear of victimization through witchcraft accusations promotes cooperation in small-scale societies. Evans-Pritchard came to this conclusion after studying the Zande people of north-central Africa. Still other scientists have suggested that witchcraft labels are used to mark untrustworthy or uncooperative individuals.
To further investigate these possibilities, Mace and her team conducted interviews and gift-giving experiments in 800 Mosuo households across five villages in Sichuan Province. The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
For the gift-giving experiments, Mace, senior author Yi Tao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and their colleagues provided a subsample of the Mosuo households with money. Participants were then allowed to give the money as gifts to up to three adult individuals in any other household in the study site. The scientists also collected data from Mosuo working groups on farms, during planting and harvesting times, to identify who was helping whom in their fields.
The researchers found that zhu households were no less cooperative than others, suggesting that the witchcraft label is not used to mark uncooperative or untrustworthy families.
Mace and her team additionally determined that the accusations divided the overall Mosuo social network in two: those with the zhu label and those without. Zhu households were largely excluded from intermarriage and from trading farm labor with non-zhu households. Zhu households made up for this, at least in part, by preferentially interacting with each other in small sub-networks.
Mace said very few people wanted to talk directly with her and her colleagues about the situation, given that it remains a very sensitive topic. Some of those accused of witchcraft, Mace shared, "told us not to worry about eating in their house," indicating their constant awareness of being labeled "poison givers," but that they did not believe the accusations themselves.
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As with the zhu labeling, witchcraft beliefs worldwide often involve notions of poisoning. Women frequently are the primary cooks in homes — whether they want to be or not — so it could be that supernatural explanations for stomach distress first emerged during times when biological parasitism and other reasonable scientific explanations for food-related health issues were not yet available.
"Hence," Mace explained, "in non-scientific eras, they may have filled a need for an explanation for a frightening or harmful event or illness."
"However, we do not think actual cases of parasitism are what are prompting most accusations — probably just scapegoating for any harmful event," she continued. "Or, in some cases, the tag is said to have been inherited from your mother, so the original cause may have been long ago."