While most of us are somewhat familiar with ritual sacrifice from movies and cartoons, the truth is that the ancient cultures that used to practice these macabre habits lived so long ago that many things about them are lost to history. Sure, we do have some idea about how they worked, but many things about those practices will always remain speculation.
But since the practice was so grizzly, and since we know that we wouldn’t take it well to have to occasionally give up a family member to be sacrificed, experts have been wondering whether there was more to the ritualistic human sacrifice than we believed so far. Unsurprisingly, the answer might be ‘Yes’.
According to a team of researchers from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, ritualistic human sacrifice helped consolidate stratified societies. The team studied 93 different Austronesian societies and determined that the rich might have used sacrifice as a tool to keep their position.
Dividing the societies into three groups – egalitarian, moderately stratified, and highly stratified, the team then looked at how they dealt with human sacrifice. For specifics, in egalitarian societies, individuals did not inherit wealth or status, in moderately stratified societies they did inherit but were apt to lose or to gain both during their lifetimes, and in highly stratified societies both status and wealth were inherited and were unlikely to change over a generation.
As expected by the team, only 27 percent of the egalitarian societies practiced human sacrifice, while 37 percent of the moderately stratified societies engaged in the practice and 67 percent of the highly stratified societies did the same thing. And the difference of power between perpetrator and victim was obvious.
Further investigation into the family trees shows that the rich did indeed use their power and various excuses to keep the poor in check via ritualistic human sacrifice. With religious, even supernatural authority behind the killings, everything was justifiable.
But others don’t agree with the findings. According to historian Dr. Jan Bremmer from the Netherlands’ University of Groningen, the cause-effect relationship isn’t actually there. He agrees that there was indeed a correlation between societal stratification and human sacrifice, but he doesn’t agree that it was causality.
Instead, he proposes that more killings took place in a highly stratified society because of the sheer size of it. The smaller the population, the less stratified was the society. And you can’t really afford a lot of sacrifices in a small, restricted community, as you’d lose a lot of resources.
So, even though it’s clear that bigger, more stratified societies warranted more human sacrifices, it is still unclear whether that was to enforce a class system or just to show opulence to the gods.
Image source: Wikimedia