The dark side of religion: How ritual human sacrifice helped create unequal societies
“Religion has traditionally been seen as a key driver of morality and cooperation, but our study finds religious rituals also had a more sinister role in the evolution of modern societies,” says lead author of the study Joseph Watts from the University of Auckland.
The research team used computational methods derived from evolutionary biology to analyse historical data from 93 ‘Austronesian’ cultures. The practice of human sacrifice was widespread throughout Austronesia: 40 out of 93 cultures included in the study practised some form of ritualistic human killings. The term 'Austronesian' refers to a large family of languages, whose country of origin is Taiwan and whose distribution extends over much of the Indian and parts of the Pacific Ocean. Austronesian cultures form a sort of natural laboratory for intercultural studies, since they have a huge range of religions, languages, society sizes and shapes, and are located in different climatic and geographical regions.
Victims were typically of low social status
The methods of ritual killings in these cultures were diverse and sometimes extremely cruel. The reason for the killing was, for example, the burial of a leader, the inauguration of a new boat or house or the punishment for the violation of traditions or taboos. Victims were typically of low social status, such as slaves, while instigators were usually of high social status, such as priests and chiefs.
The study divided the 93 different cultures into three main groups of high, moderate or low social stratification. It found cultures with the highest level of stratification were most likely to practice human sacrifice (67%, or 18 out of 27). Of cultures with moderate stratification, 37% used human sacrifice (17 out of 46) and the most egalitarian societies were least likely to practice human sacrifice (25%, or five out of 20).
“By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralise the underclass and instil fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control,” Joseph Watts says.
Russell Gray, Director of the Department of Linguistic and co-author of the study, notes that “human sacrifice provided a particularly effective means of social control because it provided a supernatural justification for punishment. 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.”
Ritualistic killings shored up social hierarchies
A unique feature of the research was that the use of computational evolutionary methods enabled the team to reconstruct the sequence of changes in human sacrifice and social status over the course of Pacific history. This allowed the team to test whether sacrifice preceded or followed changes in social status.
Co-author Quentin Atkinson says: “What we found was that sacrifice was the driving force, making societies more likely to adopt high social status and less likely to revert to egalitarian social structure."
Source: Max Planck Institute [April 05, 2016]