A proficient philosopher (anyone who understands relative connotations in a story) understands that models, metaphors, and other forms of illustration are necessary for expressing certain concepts. Personally, I find it meaningful to extrapolate from history for both guidance and illustration while demonstrating real world application. History is my greatest teacher. From its clutch, I can uncover rich parables and lessons from those who‘ve treaded earthly crust before me. It’s simple enough to point to Nazi Germany or Mao’s China, but tribal civilization is the oldest well to draw from. The events leading to the social collapse of the Easter Islands is a decent starting point.
The Easter Islands were once abundant with tropical life. Plants, animals, trees… It was paradise according to modern ecologists, geologists, and historians. Today, the island is barren much like a desert, though restoration attempts are underway. Remains of carven stone will continue to serve as a lesson to the human species. The island was originally colonized around 1200 BCE. The new inhabitants were likely Polynesian – a superstitious culture. However, as with most cultures, their beliefs varied as time passed. Since 300 – 400 BCE settlers had come, all carrying with them different perspectives on reality, gods, natural forces, among other cultural themes. The dominant cultures believed that the dead supported the living with luck, health, and overall survival. With a bit of positive reinforcement in those areas – one could even strive for a happy and full life. Thus, this supernatural facilitation was valued highly. When things went well, praise was given. When hard times came, some cursed the gods and spirits.
The idea of a god allows for a venue of belief and/or knowledge that provides reason for what seems otherwise unpredictable and frightening. Some gods give purpose in the believer’s mind. Tribal peoples have traditionally placed great emphasis on finding a reason behind natural phenomena. Why? A deity can explain away raging seas, wind gusts, rain, sun, temperature, etc. In effect, forces that once evaded primitive comprehension were made tangible – and thus, available for control to some degree. Once in awhile a coincidence would coin someone a medicine man, or, “Shaman,” in tribal rank. For example, a ritual performed by the individual may coincide with a natural event. Such a phenomenon is enough to nudge along the idea that the practicioner is in touch with conjured unseen forces. Those believed to maintain a connection with the unknown were/are often sought for their counsel. Through Shamanic understanding, believers could glean off of the promise of obtaining metaphysical knowledge. Leaders sought/seek counsel from the Shaman, as well. At times, Shamans were/are even elected to lead. Throughout history, there are not many cultures that have closed Shamans out of their councils. The Shamanic seat of authority can be shown to greatly affect physical reality, and not through magic. Rather, the role of the Shaman is a political one. In this model – Easter Island Shamans suggested erecting monuments symbolizing the deified dead.
This cultural landscape launched the decline of resources available based on the belief that raising stone idols appeased these godly ancestors. The expense was high, and would prove to be the island’s demise. Carving the stone required hard labor. The statues were erected with log built structures. The logging eventually led to deforestation. People were enslaved to carry out the tasks. The second element involved in this extinction event was an increase in population. Depopulation later became justified by a new cultural movement called the Bird man Cult. The cult contended that the direct line to the dead was no longer sufficient through the monuments alone, but must be attained through physical combat. Emerging victors were thought to have won the favor of the gods. Reminance of petroglyphs laden with bird man features tell pieces of their story. The creator deity, “Makemake,” was thought to play a key role in combat proven leadership rituals.
Europeans would eventually arrive and erect a monument to their god of choice (also known as a church). Peruvian raids raked the region repeatedly shortly after to capture slaves to be either sold or sacrificed to gods in their culture. Many island inhabitants vanished. Due to a devastating lack of resources, cannibalism plagued the region as well. The statue production left the land torn and the tree roots that once bound the tall trees to the ecosystem no longer served their vital purpose. Soon, soil erosion devastated the remaining vegetation and the land could not support a significant population. After the environmental decline, under 50 people were reported to be remaining inhabitants. The island serves as a microcosm for the final conclusion within a much larger schema. This allegory is merely one tale in history where ignorance was placed higher than achieving crucial knowledge. This same plague eroded other ancient civilizations despite their demonstration of possessing a much deeper understanding of the workings of the universe and their respective ecosystems.
Ancient ruins of the Mayan people, some archaeologists estimate to be roughly 10,000 years old, echo both tales of civilized success and civilized destruction. Mayan peoples sought to appease their gods of belief as well, by holding rituals for many occaisions – some performed to harness the power of the sun. Despite the idea sounding like lunacy today, this was a reasonably logical aim. Modern civilizations today understand that the sun is a necessary resource. If modern technology could wield its power, it would be a valuable commodity – bought and sold on the stock market. Mayan natives of old were an industrious civilization focused on agriculture, technology, architecture, art, cosmology – among other crafts. For its time, Mesoamerica housed a highly advanced empire. The culture was among the first to develop a complete language. Through observation, they formed a highly accurate calendar that is the centerpiece for archaeological marvel today. With an intricate understanding of mathematics, they built temples that also capture modern scientific awe.
Mayan interest in cosmology seeded the culture with a rich scientific background. Day and night, the Mayan peoples watched the sky move in order to record natural events and effects. Their keen observations spawned a practical system for understanding the world in which they lived. Mayans consistently held pantheist views that bridged human existence with nature, animals, and the universe. Yet, they also maintained a diverse allegoric mythology. Gods were assigned to disease, lightning, thunder, rain…among other elements and animals. Often, “Maize” is seen as the primary cultural deity of the time – A female commonly personified through important resources such as Jade, Maize, or Cacau. Ritualistic practices, including human sacrifice, were incidentally packaged in their ideas concerning the workings of the universe as well. Ritual that reflects the depths of cruelty and inhumanity.
Human sacrifice was conducted by Mayan culture to sanctify events. Most religions host a deity, or system of deities that require sacrifice of some kind. This is a common theme found in superstitious thinking. Rituals can call for fasting, bowing, and/or some form of sacred practice that displays worship, humility, obedience, and/or an act of sanctity. Captured rulers and warriors were highly honored in this tradition. The sacrificed were thrown to the masses to be eaten. The not too distant Aztec culture held similar beliefs. According to record, the Aztecs sacrificed 20,000 people in a single ceremony once. The lifeless corpses were then eaten by the crowd below.
This all may sound a bit shocking and well beyond current trends concerning moral rationale. I assure you that this streak of humanity’s capacity for bloodshed is not buried in the distant past as you would prefer to believe. A particular practice prevails in current civilizations and is visible throughout human record. This plague spans the globe. I am addressing the practice of war. Simply because this act runs beneath a different title, does not exempt it from the discussion. In principle, war parallels the travesty of human sacrifice. The difference between war and religious sacrifice is the driving ideology behind them. Generals send soldiers to their deaths just as ancient rulers once forced heads upon mantles.
In conclusion, what ties this brief exploration of human history together is belief itself. The Polynesians exploited their local resources to the extent that the ecosystem became unsustainable. The Ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures cruelly captured human beings and sacrificed them. The entire world has practiced human sacrifice through war since men came into being. There are countless examples, ranging from the petty to the magnificent, that can show the motivation of belief behind such moral deviance. Aside from auto mechanical bodily function, everything humans do requires a quality of hope, belief, knowing or ideological motive.