Anthropologists and historians have put forward the ‘social control hypothesis’ of human sacrifice. According to this theory, sacrificial rites served as a function for social elites. Human sacrifice is proposed to have been used by social elites to display their divinely sanctioned power, justify their status, and terrorise underclasses into obedience and subordination. Ultimately, human sacrifice could be used as a tool to help build and maintain systems of social inequality…. However, up until now, this idea had not been rigorously tested.
With my colleagues at the University of Auckland and elsewhere, we recently tested the social control hypothesis using a sample of 93 Austronesian-speaking cultures, and published our findings in Nature. The Austronesian family of cultures originated in Taiwan, developed outrigger canoes, and were some of the greatest ocean voyagers in human history. Thousands of years before the Viking sagas, the Austronesians had begun their great expansion, sailing west to Madagascar, east to Easter Island and south to Aotearoa – a total area covering more than half the world’s longitude….
We found strong support for the social control hypothesis: human sacrifice helped to build strictly inherited class systems, and prevented cultures from becoming more egalitarian. The overlap in religious and political authority allowed ritualised human sacrifice to be used by social elites to build and maintain social inequality. In Austronesian cultures, specialist religious knowledge, such as how to perform elaborate prayers or magic rituals, could be handed down through elite family lineages. In many c