We've all seen human sacrifice depicted in a movie, TV show, or book. Some person (or persons) is usually burnt, decapitated, drowned, or thrown into a pit for the greater good. Valid reasons for socially sanctioned murder include bad crops, drought, and war. The methods of and purposes for ritual murder are seemingly endless, but a new study published in Nature suggests that human sacrifice was used to establish social hierarchies. The analysis of seven dozen Austronesian cultures says that not only were ritual killings used by the powerful to maintain their status, but typically preceded class stratification in societies.

"The motivation and method of the killings differed across cultures, the researchers explain in a piece for the Conversation: Sacrifices could be demanded for the death of a chief, the construction of a home, the start of a war, the outbreak of disease or the violation of a social taboo. The victims might be strangled, drowned, bludgeoned, burned, buried, crushed with a newly built canoe, or rolled off a roof and then decapitated. But the link between the sacrifices and social hierarchies seemed to transcend those differences. The victims were almost always of low social status, and the more stratified the culture was, the more prevalent ritual killings were likely to be.

Of the 20 “egalitarian” societies they studied — so termed because they didn’t allow inheritance of wealth and status between generations — just 25 percent practiced human sacrifice. By contrast, 37 percent of the 46 moderately stratified societies — where wealth and status could be inherited, but it wasn’t necessarily linked to wildly different living standards or pronounced social classes —had the practice. And among the 27 highly stratified cultures, where inherited class differences were strictly enforced with little opportunity for social mobility, a whopping 65 percent committed ritual killings. The phylogenetic trees illustrated that ritual killings tended to precede social hierarchies, and once stratification occurred, they served to reinforce it."

Head over to The Washington Post to read more.

Feature image via Travelers in the Middle East Archive