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Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies


Evidence for human sacrifice is found throughout the archaeological record of early civilizations1, the ethnographic records of indigenous world cultures2,3,4,5, and the texts of the most prolific contemporary religions6. According to the social control hypothesis2,7,8, human sacrifice legitimizes political authority and social class systems, functioning to stabilize such social stratification. Support for the social control hypothesis is largely limited to historical anecdotes of human sacrifice2,8, where the causal claims have not been subject to rigorous quantitative cross-cultural tests. Here we test the social control hypothesis by applying Bayesian phylogenetic methods to a geographically and socially diverse sample of 93 traditional Austronesian cultures. We find strong support for models in which human sacrifice stabilizes social stratification once stratification has arisen, and promotes a shift to strictly inherited class systems. Whilst evolutionary theories of religion have focused on the functionality of prosocial and moral beliefs9,10, our results reveal a darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies11,12.

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Figure 1: Summary of the two series of analyses performed in this study.
Figure 2: Phylogenetic distribution of human sacrifice and high social stratification in Austronesia.

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We would like to thank K. Sterelny for feedback on an earlier version of the manuscript as well as M. Pagel and A. Meade for assistance with BayesTraits. We would also like to thank The John Templeton Foundation (28745), Templeton World Charity Foundation (0077), a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship (RDF-OUA1101), a PhD scholarship from the University of Auckland, and the Marsden Fund (UOA1104, VUW1321) for funding.

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Authors and Affiliations



J.W. designed the study with Q.D.A., J.B. and R.D.G. J.W. and O.S. jointly created and coded the variables. J.W. performed the analyses with input from Q.D.A and R.D.G. J.W., O.S., Q.D.A., J.B. and R.D.G. reviewed the results and wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joseph Watts.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Phylogenetic distribution of human sacrifice and social stratification in Austronesia.

Ancestral state reconstruction of human sacrifice and general social stratification on a maximum clade credibility consensus tree of 93 Austronesian languages. This analysis was run for 2 × 109 iterations and replicated three times. Pie charts at the nodes represent the probable ancestral state inferred in an unconstrained dependent reversible-jump Markov chain Monte Carlo23 analysis. Grey represents the proportion of our sample of 4,200 trees in which that node is absent.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-26. Please note that Supplementary Table 1 documents the sources used to code each culture with links to additional references and Supplementary Tables 2-26 provide additional results from our phylogenetic analyses. (PDF 2385 kb)

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Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q. et al. Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Nature 532, 228–231 (2016).

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