Human sacrifice used to shore up social hierarchy, study finds

Many early Pacific cultures practiced ritual sacrifice.
Supplied

Many early Pacific cultures practiced ritual sacrifice.

Priests and chiefs in early Pacific cultures, including New Zealand, used ritual human sacrifices to cement their power, a study has found.

Human sacrifice was widespread in Austronesian cultures, which include early inhabitants of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand,  Madagascar and Easter Island.

Victims were burned, drowned, strangled, bludgeoned, buried alive, cut to pieces, beheaded, and crushed under canoes to please the gods.

Now researchers from two New Zealand universities have discovered these ritual killings also had a more worldly purpose. 

They were used by social elites like chiefs and priests to maintain their power.

"Religion has traditionally been seen as a key driver of morality and co-operation, but our study finds religious rituals also had a more sinister role in the evolution of modern societies," said lead author of the study Joseph Watts.

Watts' study involved researchers from the University of Auckland, Victoria University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

The team analysed historical data from 93 Austronesian cultures using number-crunching methods derived from evolutionary biology.

They found practising human sacrifice made societies more likely to be divided into the haves and have-nots instead of being equal.

Early Austronesian people probably originated in Taiwan. They spread west to Madagascar, east to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and south to the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, eventually occupying almost half the globe.

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Human sacrifice was common throughout Austronesia: 40 cultures included in the study killed humans as part of their religious rituals.

The study divided the Austronesian cultures into three main groups of high, moderate and low social stratification (inequality).

It found societies with high levels of stratification were almost twice as likely to practice human sacrifice as cultures in the moderate category.

Watts said that was because the sacrifices were used by ruling groups to keep the lower classes in line.

"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," he said.

Human sacrifice was a particularly effective way of controlling society because it provided a "supernatural justification" for punishment, said Professor Russell Gray, one of the study's co-authors.

"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."

 - Stuff

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