This is a highly speculative blog post, I’m not claiming any of this is ‘right’ but it may be a productive way of reimagining a more uncomfortable aspect of human history.
I’ve been watching ‘Planet Earth’ recently – as a box set arrived over the festive period. I’ve seen great herds of wildebeest crossing rivers and being eaten by crocodiles. I’ve seen vast flocks of bats, and the snakes who wait at the mouths of their caves. Seals being eaten by sharks. Pretty much every creature that gathers in large groups to travel or feed, seems to get these predators. The large numbers improve the odds of survival for any given individual, but also attract the hunters.
We are a soft and squishy species. Our hides, teeth and claws really aren’t up to much. Tool use, developing into weapons of both hunting and defence, have changed the game for us considerably. Once upon a time, we must have been wandering ready-meals. No doubt we faced all the same issues as the wildebeest and seals. We’re also smart, we have a knack for thinking about cause and effect, a habit of seeing patterns, that will show us patterns where none exist sometimes.
Imagine if the wildebeest figured out that by deliberately giving someone to the crocodiles, the majority would pass safely. Nature takes its tolls and tithes, and more often than not, these are fairly predictable in terms of timing and location. Whether they wanted to or not, our human ancestors were losing people to the wilderness. Storms and floods kill, so do famines. It’s not a great leap of logic to go from pacifying the crocodiles in a very literal way, to trying the same trick with the sea.
Oddly enough, I suspect giving human sacrifices to other dangerous things may have worked to a degree for wholly pragmatic reasons. Every time you do it, you pass on a degree of knowledge that you are dealing with something dangerous here, something that will have its tribute in blood. Every time you do that deliberately, you remind everyone else not to get complacent about the river, even if it hasn’t killed anyone in ages. You enact the dangerousness, you reinforce the need for respect. You quite possibly do reduce the chances of other people dying there.
The world was a much more dangerous place for our ancient ancestors. It strikes me as possible that the practise of human sacrifice would have started out as a much more pragmatic activity, much more immediately connected to life as experienced. It’s only later, when you get away from the immediate needs and start to build institutions around the process, that you might develop something innately sinister. As a species we don’t really know when to stop. We find something that works, and default to the assumption that scaling it up, doing it more often and in a more organised way will be even better. We have an innate assumption that more is better.
In just the same way we’ve gone from useful bartering tokens to money systems that people kill for, and that bring about numerous deaths around the globe every year. We needlessly kill and maim vast numbers of people on the roads each year, for the sake of going further and faster. We are still practicing human sacrifice on a large scale. We’ve just labelled it differently so that we can uphold our illusion of being more civilised now.