How Human Sacrifice Created Modernity

The title doesn’t just refer to the tens of millions of faceless laborers who, over the centuries, quite literally built, maintained, and fought for everything that makes up modern civilization. I am talking about ritual and religious human sacrifice, wherein individuals — and sometimes masses of people at a time — are killed to serve or petition some sort of higher divine source.

While this once near-universal practice has thankfully been left behind (for the most part), a recent study makes the provocative suggestion that religiously sanctioned killings helped lay the sociopolitical groundwork of modern society. As The Washington Post reported:

An analysis of more than seven dozen Austronesian cultures revealed that the practice of human sacrifices tended to make societies increasingly less egalitarian and eventually gave rise to strict, inherited class systems. In other words, ritual killings helped keep the powerful in power and everyone else in check.

That finding might seem intuitive — societies in which some members are habitually killed probably value certain lives over others — but it has broader implications, the researchers said in the journal Nature. It suggests a “darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies”, they write, in which “ritual killings helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors and the large, stratified societies we live in today.”

Lots of sociologists have theorized about this connection, the researchers say, but there haven’t been many rigorous scientific studies of how it came about until this one.

The societies subject to the study were located all over the Pacific, from New Zealand and the Philippines, to Hawaii and Easter Island, and included both small, egalitarian communities and large, socially stratified ones.

Social stratification, and the subsequently complex division of economic and political power, is a principle characteristic of every civilization up to the present day.

So, insofar as human sacrifices promoted and solidified such an arrangement, it played a pivotal role in creating the foundations of modern society and political economy. Given how deeply embedded these rites were to the social and political fabric of most societies, the link between modernity and ritual sacrifice is not as dubious as one might think.

Of the 20 “egalitarian” societies they studied — so termed because they didn’t allow inheritance of wealth and status between generations — just 25 percent practiced human sacrifice. By contrast, 37 percent of the 46 moderately stratified societies — where wealth and status could be inherited, but it wasn’t necessarily linked to wildly different living standards or pronounced social classes —had the practice. And among the 27 highly stratified cultures, where inherited class differences were strictly enforced with little opportunity for social mobility, a whopping 65 percent committed ritual killings.

The phylogenetic trees illustrated that ritual killings tended to precede social hierarchies, and once stratification occurred, they served to reinforce it. It was very difficult for a culture to return to egalitarianism after class differences had set in.

This finding supports the “social control hypothesis” of human sacrifice, the researchers said. This idea suggests that ritual killings are a way to terrorize people into submission, allowing the religious and political leaders (and in many cultures, those were one and the same) who ordered the killings to consolidate power unopposed.

Indeed, it was usually the poorest and most marginalized members of society — the elderly, women, children, criminals and prisoners of war — that were offered as sacrifices. Once the masses were sufficiently cowed by fear and deference, elites gradually moved on to other methods of subjugation, such as onerous taxation, serfdom, public executions, punitive warfare, and the like.

None of this suggests that human sacrifice was a deliberate, premeditated way of keeping the public under control; it is not as if religious and political elites (usually one in the same) were going through a playbook of strategies for consolidating control. They basically went with whatever did the trick at a given time, place, or social milieu.

To be sure, the study’s authors caution that correlation does not equal causation, and human sacrifice took many forms, making generalizations about its impact difficult — did every society really become socially stratified because of this practice? Still, the fact that at least some of the groundwork modernity might be owed to something as horrific and widespread as human sacrifice says a lot about the price of progress, and the sheer amount of blood and suffering on which our current societies are built upon.

What are your thoughts?

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