Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Human Sacrifices Maintained Social Power Structures

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A new study has reported that ritual human sacrifice played a central role in helping those at the top of the social hierarchy to maintain power over those at the bottom. “Religion has traditionally been seen as a key driver of morality and cooperation, but our study finds religious rituals also had a more sinister role in the evolution of modern societies,” says lead author Joseph Watts, a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology.

The study, published in Nature (, used computational methods derived from evolutionary biology to analyse historical data from 93 Austronesian cultures, 40 of which practised some form of ritualistic human killing. Early Austronesian people are thought to have originated in Taiwan and eventually settled almost half the globe. They spread west to Madagascar, east to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and south to the Pacific Islands and New Zealand.

Methods of ritual human sacrifice in these cultures included burning, drowning, strangulation, bludgeoning, burial, being cut to pieces, crushed beneath a newly-built canoe or being rolled off the roof of a house and decapitated. Victims were typically of low social status, such as slaves, while instigators were usually of high social status, such as priests and chiefs....

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.