A new report published April 4 in the premier science magazine Nature is claiming that human sacrifice played an important feature in making us the civilized yet stratified folks that we are today. The study, claim its authors, proves a “darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies.”
Using phylogenetic analysis (a tool used to trace evolutionary family trees and the relationship between different languages) the researchers plotted the connections between numerous cultural groups across the Pacific. The groups had their ancestral origins in Taiwan but had spread as far south as New Zealand and as far east as Easter Island.
Human sacrifice from among these groups was practiced for a wide variety of reasons and in fairly diverse situations. A sacrifice might be demanded at the outbreak of war, in times of disease or social crisis, when a leader died, or when commencing a building project. And sacrifices were carried out in diverse way: by drowning, strangulation, decapitation, burning, crushing, or burial.
Despite this diversity the researchers detected a central theme. Using historical and ethnographic data the authors of they found that, while the motivations for practicing human sacrifice varied, there was a consistent correlation between sacrifice and social stratification.
Apparently of the egalitarian societies included in the study only 25 percent practiced human sacrifice; among the moderately hierarchical 37 percent engaged in it; and of the most highly stratified groups 65 percent utilized the practice. In these examples those executed tended to come from the lower levels of society. In other words: people kill the weak to prop up the powerful.
The authors conclude that human sacrifice was instrumental in the transforming “humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors, to the large stratified societies we live in today.” Yikes.
The study has been criticized for both stating and overstating the obvious. The idea that human sacrifice (like all forms of sacrifice) reinforced social hierarchy has been recognized in sociology and religious studies for over a century. At the same time it is unclear if a study of Pacific-based cultures is relevant for our understanding of sacrifice in Mesoamerica, Europe, or elsewhere. Or if the study has proved that the relationship between human sacrifice and social stratification is causal.
What does seem to be undeniably true is that human sacrifice is a feature of religious mythology the world over. A number of societies, including the ancient Egyptians, would inter servants or wives alongside deceased men. Mesoamerican groups like the Incas, the Mayans, and the Pijao regularly sacrificed their enemies to the gods. At the beginning of the Trojan War, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia for favorable sailing conditions to Troy. The Celts are known—via Julius Caesar and Nicolas Cage movies—to have burned their human offerings in a wicker man. Even the Romans, famed for the opposition to human sacrifice, twice made an exception during times of crisis and buried foreign prisoners of war alive. Judaism and Christianity may have spurned human sacrifice but Abraham came pretty close, and Israelite leader Jephthah actually offered up his daughter in fulfillment of a vow. And, according to early Christian writers, the people of North Africa would sacrifice their infant children to the gods Baal and Ta’anit.
In some cases these stories support the idea that only the weakest in society should be sacrificed to the gods. In times of trouble, ancient Greeks practiced what was known as a pharmakos ritual. A beggar or prisoner-of-war would be dressed as a king and paraded around the city before being driven out, beaten, and—in many cases—killed. The purpose of the ritual was to purify the city, but rather than using an actual king a surrogate was supplied.
In other religious myths and traditions it was important that a high-status individual sacrifice himself or herself for the community. Iphigeneia was a princess, after all. In warfare Roman generals were known to sacrifice themselves in battle in order to secure a victory. Livy describes how the Roman commander would dress in his official toga, cover his head, stand on a spear, and hold his hand against his chin as the priest pronounced a formula of devotio in which the general dedicated himself and the enemy troops to the gods of the underworld and the goddess of the earth for the benefit of Rome and her military forces.
Similarly in Christianity it is critically important (for somewhat different reasons) that the Son of God sacrifice himself for the salvation of humanity. There is, it is true, a distinction between the heroes of religious epic and those unwillingly sacrificed on more commonplace everyday altars, but there are many examples of high-status individuals dying for the group. The truth is, there were and still are different ways of viewing human sacrifice.
In the early 20th century the anthropologist Emile Durkheim wrote that religion was one of the instincts that brought us out of the cave and made us a society. For Durkheim religious rituals in general are one of the civilizing forces in our history. Even though human sacrifice is one of the darkest rituals of our collective history it nevertheless fostered communal bonds. And if Donald Trump’s rallies have proven anything it is that the strong will trample the weak to acquire more power. Just be thankful that the Romans did away with it, or this election season would be even bloodier than it already is.