Priests in early Pacific cultures gained by human sacrifice

Priests and chiefs in early Pacific cultures, including New Zealand, used ritual human sacrifices to reinforce their power, a study has found.

Research involving two New Zealand universities has discovered such acts were used by social elites to maintain their power, the website reported.

The study came from researchers from the University of Auckland, Victoria University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

They analysed historical data from 93 Austronesian cultures, using methods derived from evolutionary biology.

It was found that practising human sacrifice made societies more likely to be divided into the haves and have-nots.

“Religion has traditionally been seen as a key driver of morality and co-operation, but our study finds religious rituals also had a more sinister role in the evolution of modern societies,” said study lead author Joseph Watts.

Human sacrifice was widespread in Austronesian cultures, which include early inhabitants of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand,  Madagascar and Easter Island.

Forty cultures included in the study killed humans as part of their religious rituals.

The study divided the Austronesian cultures into three main groups of high, moderate and low social stratification (inequality).

It found societies with high levels of stratification were almost twice as likely to practice human sacrifice as cultures in the moderate category.

Watts said that was because the sacrifices were used by ruling groups to keep the lower classes in line.

“By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralise the underclass and instil fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control,” he said.

Human sacrifice was a particularly effective way of controlling society because it provided a “supernatural justification” for punishment, said Professor Russell Gray, one of the study’s co-authors.

“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.”


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