The latest research suggests there is a significant connection between ritual human sacrifice and social hierarchy. University of Auckland scientists have confirmed this correlation by analyzing and comparing the traditional cultures of Austronesia; this is a region of the globe which encompasses several dozen islands including those of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia.

Using prior ethnographic research to track the social stratification shifts throughout history and the use of ritual sacrifice, they found that cultures which feature human sacrifice were more likely to also be strongly stratified. Indeed, those with more egalitarian cultures were less likely to participate in ritual sacrifice.

Of course, the study also showed that sacrifice methods varied across the many diverse Austronesian cultures. These methods include: drowning, bludgeoning, decapitation, burning, live burial, and strangulation. But while the methods are different, the study showed that those being sacrificed were generally regarded to be people of lower social status, and quite often slaves. Those who performed the rituals, though, were mostly of higher social status, like a chief or a priest.

ritual human sacrifice and social hierarchy“By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralize the underclass and instill fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control,” explains lead researcher Joseph Watts.

In addition, study co-author Russell Gray explains, “Human sacrifice provided a particularly effective means of social control because it provided a supernatural justification for punishment. Rulers, such as priests and chiefs, were often believed to be descended from gods and ritual human sacrifice was the ultimate demonstration of their power.”

The team used computer models to interpret the long order of evolutionary changes to better determine how changes in ritual sacrifice always preceded social change.

Study co-author Quentin Atkinson comments, “What we found was that sacrifice was the driving force, making societies more likely to adopt high social status and less likely to revert to egalitarian social structure.”

Gray continues, “Unpalatable as it might be, our results suggest that ritual killing helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors, to the large stratified societies we live in today.”

Watts adds that while this is, assuredly, quite a grim idea, it also shows how religion (and religious practices) can be exploited by social elites for their own personal gain.

The results of this study have been published, this week, in the journal Nature.