A study by a team of researchers from the University of Auckland, the Max Planck Institute and Victoria University has concluded that the ritualistic killing of humans supported social stratification.

The research team utilised computational evolutionary methods to analyse data from nearly 100 Austronesian cultures which they grouped by level of social stratification (high, moderate, low). The researchers discovered that cultures with the highest level of social stratification were the most likely  to practice human sacrifice leading to the conclusion that the use of human sacrifice was used to punish violations, and demoralise the underclass thereby instilling fear of the social elites which in turn enabled them to maintain and build control.

Professor Russell Gray, a co-author of the study, notes that “human sacrifice provided a particularly effective means of social control because it provided a supernatural justification for punishment. Rulers, such as priests and chiefs, were often believed to be descended from gods and ritual human sacrifice was the ultimate demonstration of their power.”

The full study has been published in Nature