Human Sacrifice Was the Key to Social Evolution, New Study Says
It is a concept that has been phased out of practice for quite some time in civilized society and reserved for the pages of the history books and the occasional horror movie, but according to some scientists, society may have benefitted more from ritualistic human sacrifices than we realize, or are willing to accept.
Sacrifices, by definition, were typically linked to religion and culture. They were overseen by a spiritual leader of some sort, and were said to be for the betterment of the collective—if we kill this man, the gods will send us rain for our crops. Researchers, including Joseph Watts of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, now think that there was an element of subjugation.
"Social elites used human sacrifice as a tool to instill fear and show their power," Watts told The Atlantic. "As far as tools go, it was a pretty bloody and dramatic one." In an attempt to learn more about past sacrifices and to use that information to find more positive ways to help society, Watts and his colleagues have developed a database called Pulotu, which is being used to store data about 100 Austronesian cultures (cultures from an area from Madagascar to Easter Island where Austronesian languages are spoken).
University of Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse and his team have developed a separate database (Seshat) that approaches the subject from a different angle.
Whitehouse says that it is better to cast a wider net and test theories against the data, instead of focusing on data that may already support a theory. Seshat includes data from 400 different historical societies and goes back 10,000 years.
"We're trying to develop a whole new methodology that adjudicates more objectively between competing hypotheses," Whitehouse said, "so that we end up with a more robust picture of the human past from which we can extract genuine lessons for the future."
The Seshat team found that the bigger social groups are, the less effective sacrifices are at helping to maintain the hierarchy of social statuses, and the ritual actually has the opposite effect.
"Our suggestion is that this particularly pernicious form of inequality isn't sustainable as societies get more complex," said Whitehouse. "It disappears once they pass certain thresholds, because they cannot survive with that level of injustice."
It will be interesting to keep an eye on both databases to see what conclusions the researchers come to after further analyzing the data. One thing we can say for sure now is that human sacrifices won't suddenly come back into fashion. At least not in this lifetime.
Editor's note: this article has been updated to include a link to The Seshat.