Human sacrifice built complex societies – In the News

Ritual human sacrifice played a central role in helping those at the top of the social hierarchy maintain power over those at the bottom, finds a New Zealand-led study.

File:James Cook, English navigator, witnessing human sacrifice in Taihiti (Otaheite) c. 1773.jpg
Capitan James Cook witnessing human sacrifice in Taihiti c. 1773. Engraving from an 1815 edition of Cook’s ‘Voyages’


In a new study, 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, tested the link between how unequal or hierarchical a culture was – called social stratification – and human sacrifice.

Categorising 93 different Austronesian cultures into three main groups of high, moderate or low social stratification, the researcher found cultures with the highest level of stratification were most likely to practice human sacrifice.

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.”

The research, funded by the Marsden Fund, was published today in the journal Nature.

The study has been covered both in New Zealand and overseas: Human sacrifice used to shore up social hierarchy, study finds
New Zealand Herald: Human sacrifice a tool to maintain power
Nature News: How human sacrifice propped up the social order
The New York Times; Why Some Societies Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice
Popular Science: Human Sacrifice May Have Helped Create Complex Societies
New Scientist: Has ritual human sacrifice shaped societies and class systems?
NPR: Human Sacrifice Is Linked To Social Hierarchies In New Study
Daily Mail UK: Human sacrifice played a key role in shaping ancient societies
Ars Technica: Thanks to math, we can calculate the benefits of human sacrifice
Christian Science Monitor: Did human sacrifice play a role in creating social classes?
The Guardian: Study shows human sacrifice was less likely in more equal societies
Science Magazine: Human sacrifice may have helped societies become more complex
ABC News: Human sacrifice may have helped build and sustain social class systems