Human sacrifices were possibly part of the ‘power games’ played by the elites of the unequal societies

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Earlier this week we talked about how not all prehistoric human societies were prone to violence, and thus by logic how some of these ‘peaceful’ communities were possibly strengthened without the mutual need for security. But the sad truth is – non-violence (or rather lack of violence) was the trademark of very few hunter-gatherer groups, with the majority rather opting for encounters, conflicts, and by extension warfare. And when warfare took a more organized route, so did society – with its transformation into different types of hierarchies. And now a collaborative study done by researchers (from the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and Victoria University), has suggested that how ritual human sacrifices were used by the society elites up in the hierarchy to maintain their power over the lower status populace. In essence, the historical phenomenon alluded to the phrase of reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. – ‘violence begets violence’.

Beyond the quotients of morality and rights, the study rather takes an objective (and thus precise) angle on how ritual human sacrifices mirrored the stratified aspects of their societies. In fact, from the purely mathematical perspective, the researchers found that such human sacrifices were directly proportional to the hierarchical scope of the society in question. Simply put, the more the social stratification in the cultures, the more the occurrences (or percentage) of sacrifices were evidenced from the studied societies.

Since we did bring up mathematics into the ambit, the research team used advanced computational methods used in evolutionary biology to assess a compilation of historical data. This data pertains to a conglomeration of about ninety three Austronesian cultures. The Austronesian people equate to various populations spread across Oceania, Asia and Africa; and includes ethnic groups in many South-East Asian countries and Polynesian states, along with the aborigines of Taiwan. In this regard, the focus of the study was ideal since it entailed a large spectrum of different languages, religions and even geographical areas.

Now according to the study, around 40 of these 93 cultures exhibited tendencies for ritualistic human sacrifices. The researchers then mixed-and-matched their (the cultures) historical scopes of social stratification with the occurrences of human sacrifices. And intriguingly enough, the cultures with higher degrees of social stratification tended to demonstrate such grisly practices – with figures showing 18 out of 27 such cultures (or 67 percent) accounting for the bloody ritual. Likewise, societies with moderate levels of stratification had lower occurrences of human sacrifice, with 37 percent (17 out of 46) of the cultures opting for the grisly practice. And at last, the most egalitarian societies were least likely to practice human sacrifice with figures pertaining to just 25 percent (5 out of 20).

Unsurprisingly, most of the sacrificial victims tended to come from the lower strata of these societies. As Russell Gray, co-author of the study, and the Director of the Department of Linguistic at the Max Planck Institute, made it clear –

…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.

Lastly, the integration of such seemingly desperate measures created a vicious cycle of more bloody acts that can be directly attributed to ‘power games’ on the part of the political elites. Co-author Quentin Atkinson said –

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 for the Science of Human History

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