Letter | Published:

Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies

Nature volume 532, pages 228231 (14 April 2016) | Download Citation


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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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.

Author information


  1. School of Psychology, University of Auckland, Auckland 1142, New Zealand

    • Joseph Watts
    • , Oliver Sheehan
    • , Quentin D. Atkinson
    •  & Russell D. Gray
  2. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena 07743, Germany

    • Oliver Sheehan
    • , Quentin D. Atkinson
    •  & Russell D. Gray
  3. School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington 6014, New Zealand

    • Joseph Bulbulia
  4. Research School of the Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra 2601, Australia

    • Russell D. Gray
  5. Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Palmerston North 4442, New Zealand

    • Russell D. Gray


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joseph Watts.

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    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.

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