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Anthropologists from New Zealand have collected evidence that suggests that ritualized human sacrifice was a formative rite that paved way for the large scale, stratified societies we live in today. Their findings are published online in the journal Nature, in which they state that it was used as a tool to maintain social hierarchies.

Ritual human sacrifice Public Domain Aztec ritual human sacrifice As portrayed in the Codex Mendoza, a history of the Aztec empire in pictograms.

Aztec ritual human sacrifice – As portrayed in the Codex Mendoza, a history of the Aztec empire in pictograms.

The authors looked at the history of human sacrifice across 93 traditional Austronesian societies in the Pacific. The team recorded the presence or absence of human sacrifice in each of these cultures’ past, and matched that with the level of social stratification in the present-day. Running this data through models to test whether ritualistic human killings co-evolved with social hierarchies, they found that it indeed seems to have done so. In the egalitarian societies observed in the study, only 5 of 20 had practiced human sacrifice. On the other hand, 18 of the 27 highly stratified societies had. More than starting social stratification, however, they found that human sacrifice really helped stabilize and maintain class systems once they had arisen.

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