Now that’s a big human sacrifice

I am working mostly on longer posts about linguistic change and about cultural devolution (sort of) but I keep seeing some news reports that are well worth mentioning.  Today comes a PLOS article I found about archeologists studying a mass sacrifice of children in ancient Mesoamerica.  The orthodox narrative for why some of these cultures disappeared, or at least became less prominent in the social organization of the peoples there, relates to weather, drought, internecine warfare, etc.  You know, the usual stuff, but let us not forget we are talking about humans, so existential challenges from climate, weather and geological events can be met with adaptation or with maladaptation.  We currently seem bent on reducing glacial melt that future generations will need and submerging low lying islands and coastal areas from Bangladesh to Venice.  The Dutch have a long history of mitigating against this threat but who knows what the future will bring, or at least, how bad it will be.  Farmers are already scrambling to adapt to new drought/flood conditions and heat.  Our farmer friends in North Carolina report that tomatoes, for example, are getting hard to grow because they will not set fruit when the temperature is too high. Also, ranchers are watching to see what breeds can prosper in these new conditions.  Finally, a consideration dear to my heart, the great wine growers of France (and California, etc.) are working to accommodate their methods of growing and making wine as their weather patterns shift ominously.

My point here is that humans work to manage challenges sometimes better than at other times.  Cultural beliefs play a large role in whether our efforts are successful or not.  Currently our culture seems intransigent in the face of the change needed to cope more directly with climate change for several reasons, especially due to financial powers holding on to maladaptive profit making and our own attachment to modern conveniences.  We have the scientific and technological know-how to do better but the cultural terrain is slow to shift.

In ancient times humans developed irrigation systems, terracing, and ways to keep crops warm, and they also took some magical approaches.  I think my ancestral Celts sacrificed a king or some other royal personage during sustained periods of crop failure.  Part of the Arthurian legend includes the notion that the land and king exist in synchrony—if the king is wise and just, the land will prosper and if the land is not prosperous, something must be wrong with the king, so better get a new one.  Oh well.  “To whom much is given, much is expected,” I think is a relevant phrase.

Somehow in ancient Mesoamerica they hit upon using human sacrifice as a way to meet natural exigencies.  Indeed, some peoples, like the Mayans and Incas, seem to have sacrificed so many young people that their population declined in vitality.  So the orthodox narrative that their society retreated in the face of natural challenges is only part of the answer; the other part is how they chose to meet the challenge.  Check out this PLOS article for some interesting findings about the sacrifice of 140 children and 200 assorted camelids, e.g., llamas, in pre-Columbian (around 1450 CE) South America: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0211691.

The article is fairly technical but for someone like me what is fascinating is how much science they can muster to glean information about the subjects, methods and other features of the sacrifices, e.g., genetics, careful and detailed archeological excavation, analysis of bones, dirt, burial artifacts, isotope analysis for diet, etc.  Here are some highlights.

An Inca tribe in Peru sacrificed these children, gathered from several populations from coast to mountains, and camelids at one time.  The researchers believe the most likely hypothesis for why is a natural disaster; some evidence points to heavy rains and flooding.  The children and camelids were marched to the burial site and then killed.  Most (both humans and llamas) had their chest cut open and spread to suggest that their hearts were removed.  The clean cuts and lack of false starts indicate that some skill was involved (yeah, I know, ugh!).  The llamas were also young and immature.  Some of the children had been painted with various pigments, e.g., different ochres, or dressed in special cloth.  Analysis of their diets suggested that these were not just children from lower social strata.  The victims were grouped and oriented in various ways, children to the sea and camelids to the mountains.  Finally, the researchers compared this sacrificial site to other sites in Mesoamerica and found some differences but again, many societies here sacrificed humans, especially children, to propitiate their gods.  Early Spanish invaders wrote about this.  Camelid sacrifice was evidently practiced into modern times.  Hoo boy.

This sacrifice would seem to have been a massive undertaking.  140 children and 200 camelids killed and partially dissected, arranged, and buried is no small offering, so the people clearly believed some event and god needed serious propitiation.  Even the gathering of the victims took some effort and organization. Why children?  The researchers suggest that children are an in-between group and so more pleasing to gods.  My cynical self says okay, plus they are easier to manage.  I also have to wonder if anyone had an empirical bone in his (why do I assume male priests?) body and wondered about the actual efficacy.  And while we modern humans have moved on from such rituals, somehow I think our humanity includes still a dark side whereby we mistreat the young and weak, less brutally to be sure and now with civilized reasoning.  Better travel from here.

Another from Frans de Waal coming soon

Frans de Waal has a new book coming out next week, Mama’s Last Hug:  Animal Emotions and What They Tell us About Ourselves.  I have pre-ordered it and will review once I have read it.  He is a great champion of science and animals everywhere, coining the term anthropodenial for those who deny other animals have minds and emotions like ours to oppose the old saw and accusation, ‘anthropomorphism’ that humans have hurled at those who see human traits in other animals.  Frans de Waal sees animal traits in humans because, yes, the secret is out and can be said aloud, we are animals.  He has a brief op-ed in the NYT previewing his new book you can check out:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/opinion/sunday/emotions-animals-humans.html.

I have posted before in response to some of his other books (see posts on 4/8/16, 8/26/17, 12/3/18).  He is the epitome of a good scientist as his conceptual integrity insists on seeing us as we are, animals with some cognitive talents, e.g., symbolification, but otherwise unremarkable (except, perhaps, for our destructiveness).  Yes, we cannot know directly what another animal is feeling, but I think that includes us. Best to observe the kinesic communications of empathy for such information.  Yes, we tell each other with words what we are feeling, but I have to wonder how reliable that information is, just like I have to wonder (actually I don’t–I already know–it is obvious) how well our intelligence is working these days.

The title, Mama’s Last Hug, refers to an aging chimp whose life is fading away quickly.  A researcher who worked with her (worked ‘with’, not ‘on’, understand?) came to pay his last respects, as it were.  When Mama saw him, she smiled and patted him on the head and neck, the way chimps do.  An appreciation of mortality by recognizing that our living connections are what matter.  Anyway travel on now to your next read.