Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Did Human Sacrifice Play a Role in Creating Social Classes?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Did Human Sacrifice Play a Role in Creating Social Classes?

Article excerpt

Historical records suggest that many societies performed ritual homicides to appease gods thousands of years ago. What historians still don't understand, however, is why.

"How could something so costly and devastating have been so common in early human societies?" asks Joseph Watts, a doctoral student studying cultural evolution at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Some researchers have hypothesized that ritual killings helped reinforce social hierarchies, contributing to the evolution of social classes that still exist today. A new study digs into this hypothesis to see if there is a link between the stratification of a society and whether such killings were part of its history.

"We found strong evidence that human sacrifice coevolved with social stratification and that it helped to build and maintain it," Mr. Watts, who led the new study, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

The new study, published Monday in the journal Nature, focuses on 93 traditional Austronesian societies, cultures associated with a family of languages that originated in Taiwan.

Watts and his team sorted the societies into three categories: egalitarian, moderately stratified, and highly stratified. Those communities in which individuals did not inherit wealth or status were coded as egalitarian, those in which individuals inherited wealth and status distinctions but could rise or sink in status in their lifetime were moderately stratified, and those that had inherited strong wealth and social status distinctions that were unlikely to change over a generation were highly stratified.

Of the highly stratified societies, 67 percent had evidence of human sacrifice in their history. Moderately stratified societies had 37 percent and egalitarian ones had 25 percent.

The team applied that data and coding to a family tree of sorts mapping out the evolutionary relationships between these communities to see if there was a causal link.

"What we found is that human sacrifice stabilizes social stratification in general," Watts says. The practice likely reinforced a class system, and may have even promoted such social stratification.

"There was generally a power difference between the perpetrator and the victim," Watt explains. …

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