Online Journal of Anthropology

Religion

 

How ritual human sacrifice helped create unequal societies

 

Ritual human sacrifice played a central role in helping those at the top of the social hierarchy maintain power over those at the bottom. This is the central finding of a study published today in Nature. 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, wanted to test the link between how unequal or hierarchical a culture was – called social stratification – and human sacrifice.

 

Ritual human sacrifice played a central role in helping those at the top of the social hierarchy maintain power over those at the bottom. This is the central finding of a study published today in Nature. 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, wanted to test the link between how unequal or hierarchical a culture was – called social stratification – and human sacrifice.

 

“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 of the study Joseph Watts from the University of Auckland.

 

The research team used computational methods derived from evolutionary biology to analyse historical data from 93 ‘Austronesian’ cultures. The practice of human sacrifice was widespread throughout Austronesia: 40 out of 93 cultures included in the study practised some form of ritualistic human killings. The term ‘Austronesian’ refers to a large family of languages, whose country of origin is Taiwan and whose distribution extends over much of the Indian and parts of the Pacific Ocean. Austronesian cultures form a sort of natural laboratory for intercultural studies, since they have a huge range of religions, languages, society sizes and shapes, and are located in different climatic and geographical regions.

 

Victims were typically of low social status

 

The methods of ritual killings in these cultures were diverse and sometimes extremely cruel. The reason for the killing was, for example, the burial of a leader, the inauguration of a new boat or house or the punishment for the violation of traditions or taboos. Victims were typically of low social status, such as slaves, while instigators were usually of high social status, such as priests and chiefs.

 

The study divided the 93 different cultures into three main groups of high, moderate or low social stratification. It found cultures with the highest level of stratification were most likely to practice human sacrifice (67%, or 18 out of 27). Of cultures with moderate stratification, 37% used human sacrifice (17 out of 46) and the most egalitarian societies were least likely to practice human sacrifice (25%, or five out of 20).

 

“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,” Joseph Watts says.

 
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Rare religious artifact found at ancient temple site in Italy is from lost culture fundamental to western traditions

 

The Etruscan stele was discovered embedded in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been buried for more than 2,500 years. (Credit: Mugello Valley Project)

The Etruscan stele was embedded in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been for more than 2,500 years. (Credit: Mugello Valley Project)

 

Archaeologists in Italy have discovered what may be a rare sacred text in the Etruscan language that is likely to yield rich details about Etruscan worship of a god or goddess.

 

The lengthy text is inscribed on a large 6th century BCE sandstone slab that was uncovered from an Etruscan temple.

 

A new religious artifact is rare. Most Etruscan discoveries typically have been grave and funeral objects.

 

“This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to western traditions,” said archaeologist Gregory Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, which made the discovery.

 

The slab, weighing about 500 pounds and nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, said Warden, professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, main sponsor of the project.

 

Scholars in the field predict the stele (STEE-lee), as such slabs are called, will yield a wealth of new knowledge about the lost culture of the Etruscans.

 

The slab, weighing about 500 pounds and nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, likely with new words never seen before. (Credit: Mugello Valley Project)

The stele has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, likely with new words never seen before.

 

The Etruscan civilization once ruled Rome and influenced Romans on everything from religion to government to art to architecture.

 

Considered one of the most religious people of the ancient world, Etruscan life was permeated by religion, and ruling magistrates also exercised religious authority.

 

The slab was discovered embedded in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been buried for more than 2,500 years. At one time it would have been displayed as an imposing and monumental symbol of authority, Warden said.

 

The Mugello Valley dig, specifically the Poggio Colla site, is northeast of Florence, Italy.

 

The slab would have been connected to the early sacred life of the sanctuary there. The architecture then was characterized by timber-framed oval structures pre-dating a large temple with an imposing stone podium and large stone column bases of the Tuscan Doric type, five of which have been found at the site, Warden said.

 

“We hope to make inroads into the Etruscan language,” said Warden, president and professor of archaeology at Franklin University Switzerland. “Long inscriptions are rare, especially one this long, so there will be new words that we have never seen before, since it is not a funerary text.”

 

Scientists examine the Etruscan stele, weighing about 500 pounds and nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide. (Credit: Mugello Valley Project)

Scientists examine the Etruscan stele, weighing about 500 pounds and nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide. (Credit: Mugello Valley Project)

 

Conservation and study of the stele, with full photogrammetry and laser scanning to document all aspects of the conservation process and all details of the inscribed surfaces, is underway in the next few months at the conservation laboratories of the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency in Florence by experts from the architecture department of the University of Florence. The sandstone, likely from a local source, is heavily abraded and chipped, with one side reddened, possibly from undergoing burning in antiquity. Cleaning will allow scholars to read the inscription.

 

“We know how Etruscan grammar works, what’s a verb, what’s an object, some of the words,” Warden said. “But we hope this will reveal the name of the god or goddess that is worshiped at this site.” The text will be studied and published by a noted expert on the Etruscan language, Rex Wallace, Professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

 
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