According to a new study, researchers believe that human sacrifice and ritual killings may not have been mere superstition but a means by which to become less of an egalitarian society and a “darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies.”
Lots of ways to die by human sacrifice
All over the world, priests hardly struggled to find a means by which to kill you if you came from the lower classes. They also rarely struggled to give you a reason why these killings were necessary. Pharaohs of ancient Egypt were entombed with their (living) servants so they would be attended to even in death. There are many more examples including the sacrifice of a woman at a river in ancient Japan so the spirit living around that area would allow you to build a bridge and safely fish. There is no shortage of examples in other areas of the world.
In a new study appearing in the journal Nature this week, researchers believe that may have found a considerably darker reason through the study of more than 90 Austronesian cultures. The researchers posit that the real reason for the sacrifices was to create and cement class systems by, essentially, killing the poor or at least threatening to do so.
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The wrote that they believe they have found “darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies” [in where] “ritual killings helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors and the large, stratified societies were live in today.”
Using phylogenetic analysis, a technique used to plot family trees and the development of languages, the researchers looked at 93 cultures that originated in Taiwan. The researchers looked for a link between stratified societies and those that practiced ritual killings.
Again, no shortage of reasons were used to justify human sacrifice but through their research it truly does appear that the more stratified the society the more prevalent ritual killings were.
The egalitarian societies studied showed that only 25% practiced human sacrifice but when they studied highly stratified cultures (inherited money and position), 65% participated in human sacrifice.
While sociologists have long theorized this link, or something they call the “social control hypothesis” of human sacrifice, these researchers appear to have really cemented this hypothesis. And these killings were far from quick and clean.
“It’s not just a matter of killing efficiently. There’s more to it than that,” said lead researcher Joseph Watts speaking to the Smithsonian Magazine.
Watts, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, says that sacrificed was used as a “as a stepping-stone to help build and maintain power in early hierarchical societies.” From there taxation, policing and other methods would keep people in their place.
Human sacrifice not all bad
For as brutal as this all sounds, status and unequal wealth built grand civilizations or, frankly, modern civilization. Great cities and empires were born out of these stratified societies.
“The study of religion has been plagued in many ways by an abundance of ideas and a shortage of strong quantitative tests of these ideas,” Richard Sosis, a human behavior ecologist at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, told Science speaking to the study in Nature.
“These methods have power, and they are certainly an advance in the way we can evaluate ideas. Are they the last piece to the puzzle? No.” But, he added, “at least the conversation can begin here and begin in a systematic way that hasn’t happened before.”