Aztec Human Sacrifice: Cross-Cultural Assessments of the Ecological Hypothesis

Article excerpt

Ecological, religious, and social predictors of institutionalized human sacrifice are assessed through cross-cultural analysis. While human sacrifice has no significant correlations with measures of agricultural potential, protein, total food, food storage adequacy, and famine risk, there are significant positive correlations with population density, population pressure, and war for land and resources. Population pressure and war for land and resources have independently significant correlations with human sacrifice, and together account for 38 per cent of its variance (multiple R = .62, p [is less than] .006). A measure of low hierarchical focus of religion provides significant additional explanation of variance (multiple R =.72, [R.sup.2]=.51, p [is less than] .000), suggesting human sacrifice may play a role in ideological integration. (Sacrifice, cannibalism, religion, ethnology, ecology)

Concern with the explanation of human sacrifice and cannibalism gained heightened interest with Harner's (1977a, 1977b) publications on Aztec human sacrifice and cannibalism. Harner suggests their causes were related to protein scarcity as a consequence of high population pressure in a distinctive ecological situation. Ortiz de Montellano (1978, 1990) rejects Harner's arguments based on Aztec dietary information. Price (1978), Hassig (1990), and Isaac (1983) suggest that human sacrifice was an epiphenomenon reflecting geopolitical dynamics, political and military instabilities, demographic conditions, and economic production and distribution networks. But these rejections of the ecological hypothesis do not convincingly support the alternatives proposed as the causes of human sacrifice and institutionalized cannibalism. Although some reports of cannibalism are doubtful (e.g., see Arens 1979), evidence for both human sacrifice and cannibalism is well documented in ethnographic, historical, bioarchaeological, and clinical literature(2) (c.f. Turner and Turner 1995). Cannibalism in some nonhuman primate groups (Goodall 1977) suggests that it may play a role in ecological and social adaptations.

This article reports cross-cultural analyses on previously published data sets of the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS) (Murdock and White 1969) to assess the role of ecological factors, religious conditions, and social complexity variables in predicting human sacrifice. The focus is on legitimate human sacrifice carried out by religious leaders as normative social activities. The wide range of measures examined include: social complexity variables; agricultural potential, meat protein, domestic animals, and total foods; food storage adequacy; threat of famine; population pressure; and environmental circumscription (assessed through warfare for land and resources). The relationship of religious and social complexity conditions to human sacrifice are assessed to illustrate the relevance of other social factors to the incidence of human sacrifice, and to suggest directions for further investigations.


Harner (1977a, 1977b) rejects anthropological theories that reflect Aztec explanations for human sacrifice; i.e., that sacrifice was required by their religion and gods. Based on studies of population pressure, Harner (1970) suggests that the unparalleled scope of Aztec human sacrifice and cannibalism resulted from demographic-ecological factors which created protein shortages and population pressure: unfavorable agricultural conditions, seasonal crop failures, the lack of domesticated herbivores, the depletion of wild game in the region, food scarcity, famine, and environmental circumscription caused by limitations on the expansion of agriculture. The fertile central valley of Mexico is surrounded by poor farming land, creating an environmental circumscription precluding agricultural expansion. While corn and beans provide complementary vegetable proteins, their lack of necessary fatty acids and the seasonal scarcity of these foods made these sources insufficient. …


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