I’ve written before about Peter Leeson’s work–he tends to write papers with exciting names like An-Aarrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization.
Today I encountered Lesson’s less amusingly named but no less interesting paper on Human Sacrifice [PDF], whose abstract is one of the most libertarian things I have ever read:
This paper develops a theory of rational human sacrifice: the purchase and ritual slaughter of innocent persons to appease divinities. I argue that human sacrifice is a technology for protecting property rights. It improves property protection by destroying part of sacrificing communities’ wealth, which depresses the expected payoff of plundering them. … Human sacrifice is spectacular, publicly communicating a sacrificer’s destruction far and wide. Further, immolating a live person is nearly impossible to fake… To incentivize community members to contribute wealth for destruction, human sacrifice is presented as a religious obligation. To test my theory I investigate human sacrifice as practiced by the most significant and well-known society of ritual immolators in the modern era: the Konds of Orissa, India.
Of course, it is not exactly a rigorous test, but it is still an interesting case.
Leeson’s argument is not as crazy as it sounds at first glance. Suppose you have two very similar villages living near each other; neither has any particular advantage over the other. Each produces food each year, but food production varies due to natural vicissitudes. Some years village A produces more food; some years village B produces more food. Let’s suppose A has more food. Village B might decide to go steal some of A’s food. But war is expensive: B will only want to go to war if they can reasonably hope to steal more than the cost of war.
This sets up a situation where A has two potential war-avoiding strategies. A can pay off B, giving them enough of their surplus food to make them not want to go to war, or A can burn their surplus food, making war pointless.
The first option is a good idea if you have some hope of someday trading for surpluses with Village B in the future; the second option is a good idea if Village B is full of treacherous backstabbers and you’d rather burn your crops than let them have a crumb.
Burning crops is all well and good, but what if your enemies don’t believe that you’ve really burned them? What if the sacrifice is essentially fake, like Prometheus deceiving Zeus by wrapping bull bones in glistening fat? Your enemies might attack you anyway, despite your sacrifice.
Then you need a harder to fake signal, like spending your wealth on expensive trade goods which are then publicly destroyed–and the price and death of slaves, Leeson argues, is particularly difficult to fake.
There follows some math and a description of human sacrifice among the Konds (also spelled Khonds and Kondhs) of India, which I shall quote a bit:
Kond communities sacrificed humans. Their victims were called meriahs. Konds
purchased these persons from meriah sellers called Doms (or Pans) … In principle meriahs could be persons of any age, sex, race, or caste. In practice they were nearly always non-Konds. …
Every community held at least one of these festivals every year. Typically a
single meriah was sacrificed at each festival. But this was a lower bound. Kond country visitors occasionally reported sacrifices of upwards of 20 meriahs at a time
(Selections from the Government of India, 1854, p. 22). The general impression of
British officers who visited Kond country was that “the number of Meriahs annually
immolated” was large — very large — indeed, “far larger than could readily be
credited” (Selections from the Government of India, 1854, p. 28; see also, C.R.,
1846a, p. 61). …
Immolation festivals were large, raucous, three-day parties at which attendees
engaged “in the indulgence of every form of wild riot, and generally of gross excess” (Macpherson, 1865, p. 118). The villages that composed each community took turns
sponsoring the festival—purchasing the meriah and hosting the party. …
These festivals’ main event was the immolation itself, which took place on
the party’s third day. On this day the sponsoring Kond village’s head brought the
meriah, intoxicated with alcohol or opium, to a spot previously appointed for the
In some cases the victim’s arms and legs were broken to prevent his motion. After
this and some final prayers, the priest gave the word, and “the crowd throws itself
upon the sacrifice and strips the flesh from the bones, leaving untouched the head
and intestines” (Macpherson, 1865, p. 128). While cutting the victim to pieces in
this fashion was common, Konds sometimes used other modes of immolation — all
of them spectacular and spectacularly brutal — ranging from drowning the victim
in a pit of pig’s blood to beating him to death with brass bangles, always followed
by cutting him into small pieces…
The meriah thus slaughtered, the festival reached its crescendo. The chief gave
a pig or buffalo to the priest and the meriah’s seller, concluding the event. Each
of the participating villages’ representatives took a strip of the corpse’s flesh and
departed for their settlements where they shared it with their village members who
buried the flesh in their fields.
The British, of course, put a stop to the ritual–a classic act of white people destroying POC culture.
You can read the paper yourself and decide if you think the Kond case supports Leeson’s thesis.
The Wikipedia page on the Khonds is not particularly insightful, because the Wikipedians have decided not to allow any British Raj-era sources be used for information. This is, of course, base censorship. The page overall is not up to Wikipedia’s usual standards:
The Kondh are adept land dwellers exhibiting greater adaptability to the forest and hill environment. However, due to development interventions in education, medical facilities, irrigation, plantation and so on, they are forced into the modern way of life in many ways. Their traditional life style, customary traits of economy, political organization, norms, values and world view have been drastically changed in recent times. …
The Kondh family is often nuclear, although extended joint families are also found. Female family members are on equal social footing with the male members in Kondh society, and they can inherit, own, hold and dispose off property without reference to their parents, husband or sons. … Children are never considered illegitimate in Kondh society and inherit the clan name of their biological or adoptive fathers with all the rights accruing to natural born children. The Kondhs have a dormitory for adolescent girls and boys which forms a part of their enculturation and education process. The girls and boys sleep at night in their respective dormitory and learn social taboos, myths, legends, stories, riddles, proverbs amidst singing and dancing the whole night, thus learning the way of the tribe.
Apparently Khonds don’t need to sleep, unlike us mere mortals. It’s just the myth of the noble savage, the peaceful egalitarian who sings and dances all night in harmony with nature.
No explanation is given for the photo of the “meriah sacrifice post.”
Traditionally the Kondh religious beliefs were syncretic combining totemism, animism, Ancestor worship, shamanism and nature worship. … In the Kondh society, a breach of accepted religious conduct by any member of their society invited the wrath of spirits in the form of lack of rain fall, soaking of streams, destruction of forest produce, and other natural calamities. Hence, the customary laws, norms, taboos, and values were greatly adhered to and enforced with high to heavy punishments, depending upon the seriousness of the crimes committed.
This is what pretty much every religion believes.
The practise of traditional religion has almost become extinct today. Many Kondhs converted to Protestant Christianity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century due to the efforts of the missionaries of the Serampore Mission. … Significantly, as with any culture, the ethical practices of the Kondh reinforce the social and economic practices that define the people. Thus, the sacredness of the earth perpetuates tribal socio-economics, wherein harmony with nature and respect for ancestors is deeply embedded whereas non tribal cultures that neglect the sacredness of the land find no problem in committing deforestation, strip-mining etc., and this has led to a situation of conflict in many instances.
Yes, everyone knows that people who practice slash-and-burn agriculture just love nature.
Say what you will for Leeson’s theory, at least he doesn’t LIE to us.