History

Human Sacrifice May Have Been Key to Social Hierarchies

A new study finds that sacrificed humans were consistently from lower levels of their societies.

<p>Image: John Weber // Wikimedia</p>

Ritualized human sacrifices may have had a profound impact on creating and maintaining hierarchical social systems, according to a Nature study that examined the significance of human sacrifice in certain societies of the past.

By studying 93 Austronesian cultures, ranging from modern-day Madagascar to New Zealand, the researchers found evidence that practicing human sacrifice was far more common in larger, more stratified societies.

That contrasted with more "egalitarian" cultures, which were not as prone to conducting human sacrifice.

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The research team, led by psychologist Joseph Watts from the University of Auckland, consistently found that the victims of such practices were of low social status. Those calling for or carrying out the rituals were, by and large, from higher social status, including tribal chiefs and priests.

Ultimately, Watts and his team suggested that the rituals may have been just as important in the evolution of religion in human society as, say, a sense of belonging and moral values.

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"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," he wrote.

Top image: Representation of a human sacrifice in a morai at Otaheite in the presence of Captain Cook and his officers.