Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Did Human Sacrifice Contribute to Hierarchy?

This is interesting:
...scientists from the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington, both in New Zealand, found that ritual sacrifice may have spurred the transition of small, egalitarian societies to large, stratified ones. The study examined 93 traditional Austronesian cultures (speakers of a family of languages in parts of Africa, Asia and Oceania).

They looked at whether and how these cultures used ritual sacrifice — 40 of them practiced it — and how it affected social organization. The cultures were then divided into groups: egalitarian, moderately stratified and highly stratified. They were defined by the presence or absence of social hierarchy, and the rate of social mobility.

The scientists found, perhaps not surprisingly, that human sacrifice contributed to creating and preserving social hierarchies, and that it increased the chances that societies would have more fixed strata, which were inherited positions, and less mobility. It also generally helped prevent loss of social divisions once they existed.

Despite its barbaric nature, human sacrifice was a useful tool for rulers, elites, and religious figures to maintain or cement their power, or even to proclaim their own divinity.

In these cultures, human sacrifice — usually of slaves or others with low status — was sometimes called for in response to several events, including the breaking of taboos or customs, the funerals of important people, or the consecration of a new house or boat, according to the authors.
Why Some Societies Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice (New York Times)

HS is one ancient practice that always confuses people. It's like ancient people thought,"Hey, let's just all get together and kill somebody, and that will fix everything!" (drought, war, famine, etc.). It seems incomprehensible to us today. I would, however, point out that our human sacrifices are called "layoffs" and are somewhat less deadly (the effects being delayed and all).


  1. Good points.
    Also living in an Upstate NY town that was once full of industrial jobs and now mainly littered with Dollar Stores and fast food places, I can fairly say that it isn't just people that are being sacrificed but entire communities. All to appease that great God of Progress

    1. More correct than you know. "The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die." -

      Also, this: poorer Americans now live on average thirteen years less than wealthier ones, whereas a century ago they were about equal:

  2. I remember seeing that economist article recently. Not far removed from the "let them eat cake" argument allegedly made by Marie Antoinette. How did that work out for her? I don't quite remember.

    1. If I'm not mistaking, the poor dear's hair turned a stark white and she ended up running off into the night in exile-never to be heard from again.

      True story.

  3. Gotta love America. united we Stand indeed

  4. This kind of reminds me of Hawaii where I grew up; all living things were considered to have a life-force called "mana" and food,or kau-kau, didn't have mana in it because it was dead. So, the greatest insult was to call a person kau-kau. This is old traditional culture, your average Pidgin speaking moke may not know about this.

    The ali'i (royals) had an elaborate set of rules, or kapus, so commoners would continually get snagged and (literally!!) used as shark bait, or eaten, or whatev's.

    Hawaii was up against their Malthusian limit, you see, and when Cpt. Cook happened by, and turned out not to be the god Lono, well, between that and a few introduced diseases (and mosquitos!) traditional Hawaiian culture was on its death bed.

    1. Hawaii always struck me as a more egalitarian society that didn't practice this kind of thing. Wow.

      Learn something new everyday.


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