Quirks & Quarks

Human sacrifice helped build complex civilizations

A study of island societies suggests that human sacrifice was associated with increasing levels of social organization and reinforced the power and stability of elites.

Killings helped reinforce power of social elite

Religious rites in many traditional cultures, including on the Hawaiian Islands, incorporated costly offerings—like human sacrifice. (Jacques Arago)
Religious rituals that culminate in the killing of a human to appease or please supernatural beings have been a feature of many human cultures throughout history. But a new study led by Joseph Watts, a PhD Candidate in the School of Psychology of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, now suggests that human sacrifice can be an important key in building complex, hierarchical societies.

Mr. Watts studied more than ninety historical cultures of Austronesia - the mostly island cultures that stretch from Asia to Hawaii. He found that as groups evolved from smaller egalitarian societies to more complex and socially stratified societies, human sacrifice increased in prevalence.

These ritual killings likely enhanced the power and privilege of leaders and ruling castes, and might have also served as a way of dealing with rule-breakers and trouble-makers.

Related Links

- Paper in Nature
- University of Auckland release
- NPR story
Science news story
The Guardian article