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Human sacrifice Facilitated Social Inequality

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To mourn the death of aristocrats, the Ngaju people of Borneo performed a sacred ritual that began at sunset with the tying of a slave to a pole, involved dancing throughout the night and stabbing the victim, and then climaxed with the slave collapsing in a pool of his own blood at sunrise. In other parts of the world, methods of human sacrifice included bludgeoning, drowning, strangling, burning, decapitation, burial and even being used as the rollers to launch a newly built canoe. How could something as costly as human sacrifice have been so common in early societies? And why did these rituals need to be so dramatic and gory?

Read my summary article in Aeon here, the original article in Nature here, and F.A.Q. on human sacrifice here.

Pulotu, The Database of Pacific Religions

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Austronesian speaking cultures were some of the greatest ocean voyagers in human history. From their homeland in Taiwan they came to populate a vast geographic area, ranging west to Madagascar, east to Rapa Nui and south to New Zealand—a region spanning over half the world’s longitude and over a third of its latitude. Traditionally Austronesian cultures ranged in population size from hundreds of people up to hundreds of thousands of people, and developed a wide range of technologies, social structures and religous systems. I have recently led a team of researchers to build a freely available database of Austronesian cultures named Pulotu, meaning “abode of the gods”. This database documents the traditional religious systems of 116 Austronesian cultures and includes information on their social structures and physical environments.

The database can be freely viewed here, and you will find a paper describing how and why the database was built here.

Big Gods and Big Societies

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Over half of the world’s population currently follow one of two closely related religions, Christianity and Islam. The concept of a Big God, who actively monitors human behaviour and punishes immoral actions, is a major feature of these religions and has been suggested to enhance cooperation.

I discuss my resent research on the role of big gods and supernatural punishment in human prehistory here, and the original article can be found here.