06/04/2016 4:24 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Ritual Human Sacrifice Maintains Heirachy, Says University of Auckland Study

A worshipper from the Johanne Masowe sect leads a morning prayer at a shrine at Entumbane on March 26, 2016 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. / AFP / ZINYANGE AUNTONY (Photo credit should read ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP/Getty Images)

Ritual human sacrifice is a bizarre and abhorrent part of many ancient cultures around the globe and a new study seeks to discover why people willingly gave themselves to slaughter while others demanded the killings.

The answers speak to the very core of what it is to be human.

The study, by the University of Auckland found human sacrifice was often used by the social elite to maintain power and control.

Lead author Joseph Watts said they found evidence of ritual death by burning, drowning, strangulation, bludgeoning, burial, being cut to pieces, crushed beneath a newly-built canoe or being rolled off the roof of a house and decapitated.

Why? Those who were out of favour with social elites often became the victims of human sacrifice.

“By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralise the underclass and instill fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control,” Watts said.

An illustration of human sacrifice in Hawaii by Jacques Arago in 1819.

While ancient Aztecs and Egyptians were known for their gruesome sacrifices, this study analysed cultures from Austronesian language groups -- which is Madagascar, Easter Island, Taiwan, The Philippines, Hawaii, much of Micronesia and New Zealand. Of 93 cultures included in the study, 40 practiced some form of ritualistic human killing.

It found the more hierarchical a culture was, the more likely it was to practice ritual killings. Of cultures with the highest level of stratification -- or social class, 67 percent practised ritual killings compared to the most egalitarian societies, where 25 percent had a ritual sacrifice.

Co-author, Associate Professor Quentin Atkinson said this barbaric form of control actually pushed society towards the model we know today.

“What we found was that sacrifice was the driving force, making societies more likely to adopt high social status and less likely to revert to egalitarian social structure," Atkinson said.