Why did some ancient societies like the Mayans and Aztecs make human sacrifices whereas others such as the Romans did not? Was this just chance or was there some environmental difference that made this more likely? Or have I got this wrong did all ancient civilizations carry out human sacrifice?

Is it possible that greater instability in the Mesoamerican climate compared to Europe focused extreme pressure on those responsible for “controlling” the weather and appeasing the Gods? Leading to a more extensive use of sacrifice?

  • 7
  • 2
    I think this is an issue for anthropology or religion, not for history. Your question is more difficult than it appears; we don't have records of all ancient societies in sufficient detail to really study which ones practiced human sacrifice and which did not. It appears that human sacrifice is associated with agricultural economic systems (Rome was post-agricultural, and it doesn't make much sense to compare agricultural economies to post-agricultural economies). You might start with either the WIkipedia article above, or this one.
    – MCW
    Sep 24, 2017 at 12:00
  • 1
    Suggest you have a look at the links provided in the comments above and then consider whether you still feel the need to ask this question. As Mark C. Wallace says, it's far from simple (but I think it's covered by history as well as anthropology and religion, which is one reason why it's a tough one to answer). Sep 24, 2017 at 13:18
  • Are the Aztecs an ancient society? Sep 24, 2017 at 15:39
  • 2
    The distinction between human sacrifice in Meso-America and European practices that extended into Early Modern times such as auto-de-fe is perhaps artificial.
    – antlersoft
    Sep 25, 2017 at 14:45

3 Answers 3


I think this is a question for history, even though it is also a question for anthropology (and that Rome was anything but post-agricultural).

The Romans certainly practiced human sacrifices in older times. The practice was forbidden by a Senate decree in 97 BC, and Romans later came to believe that it was uncivilised behaviour. They seemed to believe that the Carthaginians (and/or Phoenicians in general) not only sacrificed human beings, but even sacrificed children of their own, which they regarded as doubly repugnant. Whether the Phoenicians actually did that (and in which circumstance or up to when) is debatable (the Romans leveled the same accusation against Christians, Gauls, and Jews, which seems to point to them not being above making false accusations of that nature).

But also the Hebrews quite certainly practiced human sacrifices in early times, albeit not at the time the Romans were concerned with them. The Biblic narrative of God demanding Abraham to sacrifice his son, and recanting at the last moment is probably symbolic of the abandonment of this practice.

So the issue would rather be "why were the Mayans and Aztecs still making human sacrifices in 1500, while 'old world' civilisations had abandoned such practices (more than) a millenium earlier"?

One probable explanation is that Mexican/Central American civilisations were more recent than those in the "old world"; given enough time, they would probably have evolved in a similar direction. But the scale of human sacrifices in pre-Columbian Mexico/Guatemala was probably much bigger than in the old world, and Peruvian civilisations, albeit similarly recent, don't seem to have had anything as important or widespread, if at all. So it is possible that another factor was at play, probably rooted in the hostile relations between the Aztecs and their neighbours, and linked to the extensive ritualisation of warlike activity between them.

  • Interesting. I have already tried this on world building who suggested history. But I understand it might be an interdisciplinary issue. So it seems that sacrifice was often practiced in really ancient societies, but was less so in the Common Era. Although the Aztecs were “recent” the ancestry of civilization in the area goes back thousands of years I believe the pyramids of the Sun in Teotihuacan was built around 100CE and the Olmec came before then.Presumably a total breakdown between times?
    – Slarty
    Sep 24, 2017 at 19:04

On reflection, I think there is a partial answer to your question, but I think the question needs to be reframed

tl;dr - religious activity matches the emotional needs of people based on their dominant economic activities. Human sacrifice most commonly appeases the spirit of the crops killed and is associated with early agriculture.

Human sacrifice is associated with societies that have recently adopted agriculture. ( I think Mr. Henrique & I can agree that Rome's adoption of a agriculture was not recent; Rome was formed from societies that were already established as agricultural. )

Couple of notes based on comments

  • "post agricultural" does not mean that people stop growing food. I'm very hesitant to state the following because I'm summarizing a complex topic, and the words aren't used in a colloquial sense - I don't want to offend.

  • Forage societies are organized in very small bands - generally < 25 people. The social organization tends to be participatory democracy or "big-man". They are almost never literate. (AKA Hunter-Gatherer) Religious practice is appropriate to the economic activity (hunting & gathering)

  • At some point many cultures develop horticulture or agriculture - social organization tends to shift to a Priest-King dynamic, and social unit size expands into the hundreds. Religious activity changes to an organized priesthood (necessary to organize the activity of 10-100x more people operating in a social unit). This is where human sacrifice is most common - men must die to appease the fertility gods. I'm vastly oversimplifying; the material is very easy and very available, but you're studying anthropology, not history). Literacy appears at this stage.

  • At some point commercial and industrial activity emerges; there is another shift in social organization, in religion and in size of political units. Rome is in this stage; their religious activities are appropriate for their economic activities. (and although the majority of inhabitants in the Roman Empire may have been engaged in politics, those individuals had almost no civil rights - they were slaves. They had religious practice - it is a different question for a different forum if that practice was "pagan". The Romans who were involved in social organization and power the religious and political leaders had nothing to do with agriculture - they owned land and slaves, and may have grown cabbages as a hobby, but their religious questions had nothing to do with the guilt over killing corn. The rules around the Roman Pontifex had nothing to do with harvest - they had to do with preventing him from touching weapons of war and scheduling festivals for the populace.

This pattern isn't about east-west or north south or climate - it is about the emotional/spiritual needs of the people engaged in economic activity. I'm doing a horrible injustice by summarizing huge bodies of theory in a couple of paragraphs (and I haven't researched this area in 20 years, so there is doubtless new theory available).

Most important takeaway - ignore everything else I've said and just go read some of the material cited below. It is accessible, fascinating, eye opening, clearer than my summary and you'll be glad that you did.

I can't provide a pithy quote, but you may find it useful to consult

Campbell's work is surprisingly accessible, given the complexity of the theory. His four volume series on the relationship between mythology and economy is quite nice, although I drop out when he gets to modern constructive mythology. (that isn't really relevant to your question either)

It isn't history, and it should not be evaluated by historical standards - it is anthropology, and should be evaluated by the standard of "Does this theory help me to explain/understand/predict?"

  • "Human sacrifice is associated with societies that have recently adopted agriculture." That's a better formulation, yes. Thanks. Evidently, what would constitute "recent" is debatable, and I am not sure that agriculture was that much older in the Roman Republic (from 6000 BC, perhaps, to 300 BC) than in the Aztec "empire" (from 1500 BC, probably, to 1500 AD) Sep 24, 2017 at 18:19
  • The Roman kingdom (before the Republic) was formed from refugees from other agricultural societies. The Italian peninsula had converted from forage (hunter-gatherer) to agriculture long before recorded history. None of the Romans had any memory of a lifestyle that was not based on agriculture.
    – MCW
    Sep 24, 2017 at 18:28
  • If agriculture was a key component perhaps the climate in Mesoamerica v Europe was important?
    – Slarty
    Sep 24, 2017 at 19:08

The question puts in contrasts Mayans and Aztecs with Romans, and all these were developed civilizations, where agriculture was not at all a recent discovery. Another example that could be mentioned is that of the Carthaginians, who practiced human (especially child) sacrifice. But each case may need to be considered separately, as it might prove problematic to assign a common single cause to all cases.

Maybe the answer could be given in terms of history of religion, and also anthropology and philosophy of religion, rather than in simply "historical" terms, considering:

  1. the place and logic of religion within each of the aforementioned societies (which may be considered more or less "religious")
  2. the place of human sacrifice within each of the religions of these societies (as different religions may prove to be more or less "sacrificial").

Each of these points are problematic by themselves, as they depend on very different answers that can be given to questions like:

  • Is human sacrifice an "essential" aspect of the religious phenomenon?

  • Is human sacrifice a "primitive" trend in the evolution of religions and of social institutions?

  • Is therefore the disappearance or rarity of human sacrifice the sign or the effect of religion practice and institutions being superceded by newer institutions with a different/separate logic - namely the political ones? Why is that not the case with the Aztecs then?

As such arguments are more philosophical than historical/archaeological, they are all controversial, but they may help provide a few basic terms with which an answer could be formulated.

For example, on the place of sacrifice in the evolution of religion, an interesting theory is that of René Girard; he considers religion as the first real human institution and as the capital means through which humans have come to terms with intestine violence. Girard considers intestine (or "mimetic") violence an essential aspect of human societies and sacrifice as the primitive way to control, re-direct and so to speak "domesticate" the violence of human societies. Also, he sees an anti-sacrificial trend in the evolution of both religion and human societies. Religion and violence became separated, violence came to be seen as anti-religious or as exceptional.

On the way "primitive" religion is gradually replaced by a religion that is controlled by political logic and institutions, a very philosophical (in hegelian terms) but interesting book is The Disenchantment of the World by Marcel Gauchet. It analyzes how political power has its own logic that gradually replaces "religious" logic, how the city states and the first empires impose changes of the religion itself, and of the very meaning of religion. Gauchet is not interested in the violent aspect of religion but the two theories can be used together in order to understand how elements that initially were mingled together (sacred, violence, power) gradually became differentiated.

A different theory on religion, that of Mircea Eliade, confirms to a point this perspective. When he considers the "essence" of religion, namely the "sacred", he understands it in philosophical/ontological terms, far from the violent/sacrificial aspect of Girard's theory; but for Eliade, like for Girard, to understand the "ground zero" of religion and the "religious" in its purest form is to go back to the most primitive forms of religion. And when Eliade analyzes the religions of Romans and Greeks (and of other city-states and empires) he points out the fact that the most primitive aspects have disappeared to a great extent or have been re-interpreted in a context that (in this view) is less "religious". This confirms the perspective described above, where we have an evolution of religion in relation to institutions that gradually free themselves from the strictly religious and impose a new world with new meanings (what Gauchet called "the Disenchantment of the World" and Eliade calls desacralization).

These new meanings have gradually started to include more and more aspects of what we now see as politics, justice, philosophy and science, while keeping a lot of religious "packaging" all the way.

Trying to articulate an answer to the question:

First, as I said, the question is not about "primitive" religion (where there are no states, powerful armies, etc), but about the religion of rather developed civilizations. Whether sacrifice is a "primitive" trend of religion may be a matter of speculation but, in the context of this question it may be considered so . This is confirmed by the answers that point out the relation between primitive agriculture and human sacrifices. In this sense, for the sake of this argument, human sacrifice will be considered "normal" at this "primitive" level, but problematic at a later date.

The question, then, amounts to asking how come a such "primitive" aspect is present in some developed civilizations and is absent in others.

It is noticeable that the disappearance of human sacrifice means less violent religions, but it doesn't mean less violent societies, on the contrary. Violence becomes the monopoly of far more powerful institutions than the strictly religious ones. These institutions are the political ones; they have a bigger control over intestine violence but are able to exercise a greater violence than ever before, either internally (as violent authority) or externally (as conquering kingdoms and empires).

As for the answer, I think we have to consider the case of those civilizations where human sacrifice has disappeared. Why has it disappeared? As sacrificial violence tends to melt away into judicial violence, the development of powerful justice practices and institutions contributed to the full abandonment of human sacrifice.

In the case of the Romans, Greeks and many other ancient civilizations, the sacrificial aspects of religion, especially human sacrifice, have greatly receded, and have become not only rare, but exceptional, or completely absent. Animal sacrifice has thus become the rule. An odd case is that of the Athenian pharmakos (French link is more detailed); it may have been rare, and the institution itself, without being exceptional, triggered the sacrificial event only in exceptional situations of crisis. The logic of such sacrifices is that when the "modern" institutions failed (in cases of military or natural disasters), the "old" mechanisms were used to help improve the situation.

A somewhat different case is that of civilizations where human sacrifice was rare, but not exceptional, as it was done on regular basis at certain moments and places. That seems to be the case up to a point with the Carthaginians, Phoenicians, and other Middle East kingdoms and empires. Retainers sacrifices have been regular up to a certain date in Egypt and China. India's economic, political and religious diversity amounts to a more complex case, because "primitive" human sacrifice (in certain isolated agricultural communities), and other regular sacrifices like that of wifes of deceased or those to Sakti are documented until much recent dates.

A special case is that of the Amerindian empires, and especially of the Aztecs. It seems that in this case the religious institutions related to human sacrifice have not only been kept with the strengthening of the political institutions, but have been further developed and strengthened. What arguably happened was a sort of innovation where sacrificial religion and politics became unified under a single imperialistic ideology, by which the development of the empire stimulated sacrificial religious practices and these practices stimulated the imperial development (as it imposed a constant need for new captives to be sacrificed).

An aspect that is not mentioned in the question is the relation between human sacrifice and canibalism. Canibalism may possibly be the most "primitive" aspect of this "primitive" phenomenon, but this qualification may be controversial. What is not controversial is the fact that Aztecs were also practicing canibalism. This may have been encouraged by the originality of the Aztec religious ideology and by other cultural trends relating to the ecological or biological background. (These ecological reasons are also controversial, but on the importance of biological and climatic circumstances one can find interesting Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel.)

Summing it up: human sacrifice has disappeared due to political and ideological developments that have replaced the role of religious violence with a new religious, political, judicial and military order. This trend was both expressed and encouraged by a second factor, the developments of the religious discourse itself, which became explicitly anti-sacrificial: in some Greek myths, in the Jewish religion, in the Persian religion, in Hinduism and Buddhism. The presence of human sacrifice in certain cases can be explained by the lower presence of one or both of these two factors and/or by a contrary development (the Aztec case) where increasingly powerful political institutions have stimulated sacrificial practices instead of replacing them.

  • Superb answer. Upvote with vigor!
    – MCW
    Sep 25, 2017 at 16:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.