Researchers from the University of Auckland studied a possible link between human sacrifices and social status. The team chose Austronesian cultures because of their varied lifestyles and homelands. The article says that ancient cultures might have used sacrifices to stabilize and justify social class systems.
Hierarchy comes from Greek and it means “rule of a high priest”. In this system, people are considered items and they are organized in different vertical levels going down from the most important to the bottom of society. The idea was to give everyone a task and the performance was evaluated by a superior, similar to a modern office. The boss supervises managers, managers evaluate supervisors and supervisors ruin everyone else’s day. Social status is inheritable which means the son of your boss is our boss too.
Humanity comes from egalitarian groups where each individual had the same worth, so creating a social status system where everyone has to report to someone is very difficult. In order to do so, the dominant class had to enforce its authority by any means and a ritual sacrifice might do the trick.
By commanding someone to die, a ruler leaves clear that he is the maximum authority, but this kind of actions usually lead people to create opposing parties. However, a ritual sacrifice has a very religious connotation which redirects the level of guilt. In other words, it is not your chief who is commanding you to die, it is god. The most common victims of human sacrifices were slaves and the most common instigators were priests and chiefs.
There were some occasions when ritual sacrifices were more common; the burial of a chief, the inauguration of a building or ship and also it was a custom when someone broke specific rules. The methods also varied; beheading, bludgeoning, being crushed by a ship, being cut into pieces and a long etc. The Roman Empire was well-known for using these kind of executions to both show authority publicly and entertain the masses in the arena.
The control hypothesis
In order to prove this, a team led by Joseph Watts from the University of Auckland, studied the social stratification of 93 Austronesian cultures. They separated them into three groups: egalitarian, moderately stratified societies and highly stratified societies. The difference between the last two is that in a moderate hierarchy people can move up the social ladder within a generation, but in a highly stratified society changing improving your family name is much more difficult.
From the whole group (93), 40 used ritual sacrifices. From the egalitarian groups (20 total) 5 sacrificed people, 17 moderate hierarchies out of 46 practiced ritual sacrifices and 18 civilizations with a strong social pyramid from 27 used the same tool.
Respectively, the statistics are 25 percent, 37 percent and 67 percent, which means human sacrifices were more present in social groups that heavily relied on social status. Some specialists call it the “control hypothesis”
But as the article itself reads, the study does not prove the theory. The authors urge for more studies that lead to a better understanding of how society evolved. The article was published in the Nature journal on April 4, 2016. In addition, Mcmillan, the publisher company, released an online PDF which is currently available for free.