The ritualistic killing of animals and humans to appease the gods had played an integral role in many societies through the centuries. A recent controversial study hypothesizes that these religious rituals may have encouraged the development of complex civilizations, taking society from small, egalitarian groups to the large, stratified societies of today.
Human sacrifice was often carried out by chiefs or priests on powerless people like slaves, who were treated royally prior to their brutal death. They were beaten, crushed or had their heads cut off in order to appease the gods upon the death of a chief, the blessing of a new home or boat. The act was also used for taboo violations, to demoralize the underclass, to mark class boundaries, to instill fear on social elites and/or to maintain social control (obedience to authority and a stable government). Taking a life was the ultimate display of authority.
This is an example of the “social control hypothesis,” where the elite may have used sacrifice to preserve their power and status by claiming supernatural approval of their acts.
Joseph Watts, psychologist and doctoral student who studies cultural evolution at the University of Aukland in New Zealand led the study. He and his colleagues analyzed 93 Austronesian (those with a common ancestry based in Taiwan and migrating across the Indian and Pacific oceans) societies. They used historical and ethnographic accounts to identify which cultures practiced human sacrifice prior to contact with industrialized nations. From this data, they built family trees using linguistic coded showing how these cultures evolved. The research suggests that a belief in supernatural punishment promotes political complexity and considers whether human sacrifice and social stratification (status/social mobility) evolved together. They found that two-thirds of highly stratified (with strict, restricted social mobility with inherited status) practiced human sacrifice while one-fourth of egalitarian (rank and power not inherited) practiced the ritual.
People often claim that religion underpins morality. (This study) shows how religion can be exploited by social elites for their own benefit … Our results reveal a darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchic societies.
This theory has not been without its doubters. Joseph Henrich, a human evolutionary anthropologist at Harvard University urges skepticism when using language trees to interpret cultural practices.
Richard Sosis of The University of Connecticut states,
These methods have power, and they are certainly an advance in the way we can evaluate ideas. Are they the last piece of the puzzle? No. But, at least the conversation can begin here and begin in a systematic way that hasn’t happened before.
The conversation also extends to modern society with discussions about separation of church and state, the morality of the death penalty, abortion and even war.