How Elites Used Human Sacrifice to Enforce Inequality in Ancient Societies
Religion has long been a useful tool for social control, with fear of god used in service of every despicable practice from slavery to war. A new study reveals that religious rites, particularly ritual sacrifice, helped create and maintain class stratification in ancient societies. According to researchers from the University of Auckland, Victoria University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, the findings reveal a “darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies” than once thought.
The analysis focused on 93 Austronesian cultures, meaning peoples who originated in Taiwan, later settling in Madagascar, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) the Pacific Islands and New Zealand. Researchers found that the more class stratification that existed in a society—elites on top, with the rest of the populace on the bottom—the more likely it was to engage in ritualistic killings. The powerful frightened the masses into staying in proverbial line by employing “god-sanctioned” sacrifice, which entailed implicitly threatening the lives of many for supposed wrongdoing. Those at the top became, by proxy, gods among men and women, and they maintained those positions by doling out killings as they deemed necessary.
“By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralize the underclass and instill fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control,” lead study author Joseph Watts stated in a press release.
“[H]uman sacrifice provided a particularly effective means of social control because it provided a supernatural justification for punishment,” says study co-author Russell Gray. “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.”
The method by which sacrifices were carried out reads like a horrifying laundry list of ways you would never want to go out. Ritual killings took the form of “burning, drowning, strangulation, bludgeoning, burial, being cut to pieces, crushed beneath a newly built canoe or being rolled off the roof of a house and decapitated.” Once a society began using sacrifice to keep the ancient equivalent of the 1 percent in the top slot and slaves at the bottom, the system became self-perpetuating.
“What we found was that sacrifice was the driving force,” says researcher Quentin Atkinson, “making societies more likely to adopt high social status and less likely to revert to egalitarian social structure."
The study, which was published in Nature, holds obvious implications for the roles of religion—and fear—in our own top-down, elite-ruled culture.
“Religion has traditionally been seen as a key driver of morality and cooperation,” states Watts, “but our study finds religious rituals also had a more sinister role in the evolution of modern societies.”