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Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part V

In 1998, Winkelman studied seven societies that practiced “legitimate human sacrifice which was a form of normative behavior, involving propitiation, as opposed to malevolent human sacrifice”(Winkelman,1998), and who practiced human sacrifice within the time frame of 1750 B.C. to the present (Winkelman,1998 p. 5, 11). “All seven cases of human sacrifice were found in societies with a high reliance upon agriculture, with sedentary and relatively permanent residence patterns…and relied upon domestic animals for food sources, but were not pastoral societies, and did not use milk products” (Winkelman, 1998. p. 6).


Additionally, six of the seven societies had priests, who acted as “elite sociopolitical functionaries and had roles in the communal religious activities associated with propitiation and calendric agricultural rituals” (Winkelman, 1998, p.5). Winkelman concluded that “human sacrifice was significantly and positively associated with the population pressure measures based upon total food supplies, adequacy of food storage, and meat protein” (Winkelman, 1998. p. 7).


Additionally, in a 2004 NASA study regarding Mayan agriculture, irrigation, and deforestation, Michon Scott (2004) concluded that because Mesoamerica was so densely populated around 800AD, that slash and burn agriculture could not possibly have supported the Mayan society’s food requirements, yet he gives no solution as to how Mesoamerican societies could have adequately provided food for such a dense population within a rain forest environment, with inadequate water supply, extremely poor limestone soils—“unsuitable for agriculture” (Scott, 2004).


Therefore, by combining the information from Winkelman and Scott’s studies, it is reasonable to infer that the pressure to cultivate high yield crops might well have spurred a more pragmatic and less religious reason for the Elites to impose blood sacrifice—might they have needed to obtain the blood and bones for crop fertilization?

Rich, fertile soil is a necessary requirement for growing healthy crops, and in Success with Organic Vegetables, Yvonne Cuthbertson (2006) stated: “Soil constitutes most likely to be in short supply are nitrogen, phosphate, and potash. Nitrogen is known as the leaf maker…phosphate is the root maker, and potash is essential for flowers and fruit” (Cuthbertson, 2006). Could this be the meaning behind the Mesoamerican flowery wars, which were fought to acquire enemies for use as sacrificial victims?


Cuthbertson went on to explain that the phosphate in bone-meal is “released slowly, aiding seed germination, stimulating root and pod growth, and promoting early ripening of roots and fruit…and dried blood is 12-13% nitrogen and is a fast acting fertilizer…”(Cuthbertson, 2006). Although Winkelman did not suggest that sacrificial blood was used as fertilizer, the essential findings of his study seem to connect blood rituals with food supply anxieties; “The magnitude of their [Aztec] sacrifice and cannibalism may reflect their extreme conditions” (Winkelman, 1998. p. 17). And, in comparison to “other societies with human sacrifice, the Aztecs were …the only society in the sample with a high risk for famine…had the highest population density, and the highest levels of overall warfare for land and resources”(Winkelman, 1998. p. 17).


To be continued….


Scott, M. (2004), Mayan mysteries: global hydrology resource center. Retrieved from

Winkelman, M. (1998) Aztec human sacrifice: Cross-cultural assessment of the ecological hypothesis. Ethnology, 37(3), 285.

Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part II


Nearly everywhere in the modern world, the first Homo sapiens are depicted as robust and fearless hunters, heaving spears at wild mammoths or roasting freshly killed animal flesh over an open fire.

One need look no further than the Holy Bible to realize where this image may have originated. The Jewish, Muslim, and Judeo-Christian creation myth in the book of Genesis clearly states that since the beginning of time, God gave mankind dominion over all of the beasts of the earth.

"The Garden of Eden" by Lucas Cranach der Ältere, a 16th century German depiction of Eden

“The Garden of Eden” by Lucas Cranach der Ältere, a 16th century German depiction of Eden

Yet, while the earliest humans adapted to the elements of wind, rain, fire, and harsh temperatures, they were also regarded as prey by certain carnivorous predators. It is possible that the earliest weapons were not created for hunting, but for defense against the carnivorous predators who viewed the humans as food.


Darwin reasoned that hominid’s evolution into a social animal “might not have happened if they had been strong enough to withstand predators one-on-one” (Ehrenreich, 1997. p.53). In addition, Dutch biologist Adriaan Kortlandt, concluded that “for early hominids, breaking a leg would have been fatal due to carnivore predation” (Kortlandt, “How Might Early Hominids Have Defended Themselves?”; Ehrenreich, 1997). Clearly, Homo sapiens must have learned from these horrendous encounters that not only was there safety in numbers, but that the gods were insatiably hungry for blood.


Walter Burkart illustrates what may have been the first sacrificial offerings, in Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual:

“[Imagine] a group surrounded by predators: men chased by wolves…or in the presence of leopards. The utmost danger is met with excitement and anxiety. Usually there will be but one way of salvation: one member of the group must fall prey to hungry carnivores, and then the rest will be safe for the time being. An outsider, an invalid, or a young animal will most likely become the victim. This situation of pursuit by predators must have played a momentous role in the evolution of civilizations, while man, as a hunter, became a predator himself” (Ehrenreich, 1997)

Burkart’s story is compellingly synonymous with the classic ethical dilemma of the lifeboat scenario. Who should be thrown over the side to lighten the load and save the rest; the mother, the lawyer, the child?  Once again we see the sacrificial victim being thrown to the predator, the sea (Ehrenreich, 1997. p.59).

It also stands to reason that Homo sapiens initially tasted blood not as hunters themselves, but as scavengers who tread warily, waiting for the prevailing predator to leave the carcass of his last kill. “Careful examination of archaeological evidence in a number of sites, has led to the conclusion that hominids and even early Homo sapiens…likely obtained the meat they did eat by scavenging the kills left by more effective predators…”(Ehrenreich,1997.p.39).


Blood sacrifice may well have originated from Homo sapiens justified fear of a bloody death by predator, however, Homo sapiens must also have had a desire to placate the carnivore, after all, it was his provider of life-giving scavenged meat.

Bruce Bower, in a 2010 article from Science News explained that fossilized bones, dated over 3 million years old, show marks from stone tools that had been used to scrape the meat and marrow from the bones. And although Lucy’s species does not show evidence for hunting or fire, “her kind must have competed with other scavengers to salvage meat from animal carcasses” (Bower, 2010).

Homo sapiens finally elevated themselves to a higher position on the food chain, they were no longer hunted scavengers but they held the position of the dominating hunters. However, the stories, myths, and cultural adaptations, which revolved around Homo sapiens season of being the prey, appear to have caused these people to retain the desire to make flesh offerings to the devouring predators of the past, in a mythical effort to save the rest of the group from harm. It is no wonder that the “universal attribute of the archaic deity is [that of] being a carnivore”(Ehrenreich, 1997. p.31).



Bower, B. (2010) Butcher may be the world’s oldest profession. Science News, 178(6),8.

Ehrenreich, B. (1997). Blood rites: Origins and history of the passions of war . New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company LLC