Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Human Sacrifice

Those interested in our specifically human origins, i.e. in the origin of human culture, as distinct from animal biology, should be interested in the work of Rene Girard and his student, Eric Gans.

One of the major points of contention between the two is Girard's claim that human culture begins with the emergence of human sacrifice or scapegoating as a way of solving "mimetic crisis" in proto-human animals who are too good at mimicing each other's desires that the biological pecking order breaks down. With the loss of social differences among these highly mimetic creatures, difference is re-established by arbitrarily choosing a scapegoat-victim. Once he is sacrificed to appease the built up tension, the scapegoat can carry the weight of everyone's blame for the crisis. The community, temporarily luxuriating in peace, imaginatively begins to turn the scapegoat victim into a divine figure whose sacrifice was responsible for saving the community from itself. For Girard, the transformation of victims into gods is the origin of myth and culture.

In contrast, Gans argues that while animal sacrifice (a new way of dividing up the fruits of the hunt that distinguishes human society from the animal pecking order) is indeed original to the human, the substitution of human for animal victims would not have emerged until the emergence of agricultural surpluses and the development of hierarchical, stratified societies ruled by a "big man" who controlled the distribution of the surplus by controlling the religious rituals where this surplus was distributed. The growing resentment occasioned by one man's domination of the ritual centre of society would have required new, more awesome, religious forms to mediate the tension. Human sacrifice, as a specifically religious act, would not have been a feature of the more primitive, equalitarian, tribes who worshiped the gods in animal form and who could not have afforded to lose members on a regular basis to sacrificial rituals.

Interestingly, a new study seems to split some of the difference between Girard and Gans: Ancient Graves Suggest Human Sacrifice

June 18, 2007 — Physically disabled people may have been ritually sacrificed by European hunter-gatherer tribes as early as 24,000 years ago, according to an investigation into burials from the Upper Paleolithic period.

Well known in large, stratified ancient societies, ritual human sacrifice has never been apparent in the archaeological data of Upper Paleolithic Europe (about 26,000 to 8,000 B.C.).

But, according to lead study author Vincenzo Formicola of the University of Pisa in Italy, several of these burials suggest that human sacrifices may have been an important ritual activity in this period.

"Our findings show that the Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers developed a complex system of beliefs, symbols and rituals that are unknown in small groups of modern foragers," Formicola told Discovery News.
And, on a somewhat different note, for a recent and reasonably accessible paper by Richard van Oort, a student of Eric Gans, that touches on the differences between Girard and Gans in their understanding of our mimetic nature, while focussing on the ingenious empirical science of Michael Tomasello who compares chimpanzee and infant human development to demonstrate how human cultural evolution is really something quite different from anything in the biological world, see here.

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