According to a new study, sacrifices, purported to be of divine sanction, were used to control lower classes by elites. The fear of God and the supernatural was used to beat the lower classes into submission and prevent their resurgence.
The study by researchers from the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology, the Max Planck Institute for the Science of human History in Germany and Victoria University, wanted to know how social stratification was linked to human sacrifice. They focussed on 93 ‘Austronesian’ cultures for their study.
The practice of human sacrifice was widespread throughout Austronesian cultures and was prevalent in 40 out of 93 cultures included in the study. Early Austronesian people are thought to have originated in Taiwan. They eventually moved south and settled almost across half the globe. They spread west to Madagascar, east to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and south to the Pacific Islands and New Zealand.
Professor Russell Gray, a co-author of the study, notes that “human sacrifice provided a particularly effective means of social control because it provided a supernatural justification for punishment. Rulers, such as priests and chiefs, were often believed to be descended from gods and ritual human sacrifice was the ultimate demonstration of their power.”
Ritualistic killings were carried out to punish those who dared to step out of conventions. Such killings were however encouraged so that the elite class could dictate rules suited to them and ensure that none violated those norms. “By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralize the underclass and instil fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control,” lead study author Joseph Watts stated in a press release.
Ritualistic sacrifices were never humane and included barbaric methods to take life. Drowning, burning, strangulation, weapons induced death etc were used to inflict pain and fear. The idea of such public sacrifices were to ensure that the display of the killings also instilled fear in people and served as a warning to them to obey what ‘God’ had asked people to do through their proxies, the elites. The system became self perpetuating because the elite wanted to maintain their clout and prevent social equality and justice.
The researchers said that the findings also explain how modern societies were formed. The fear of religious edicts drove the first principles of morality and cooperation that later developed in modern societies. Religious rituals also played a significant role in the evolution of modern societies, the study said.