When Ancient Societies Hit a Million People, Vengeful Gods Appeared
Ancient societies often used supernatural forces to explain natural phenomena, such as lightning. But in the past several millennia, religions also used supernatural forces to enforce moral codes. For example, the Egyptian sun god, Ra, judged the fate of people in the afterlife according to how well they followed the code of "maat," or "what is right." [The World's Top Religions (Infographic)]
Past work suggested that the rise of this idea of cosmic enforcement of morality was associated with social complexity. The concept of supernatural judgment evolved to help strangers in large societies cooperate, researchers hypothesized. Some work, such as analyses of Austronesian religions or of the Viking age in Scandinavia, suggested that moralizing gods preceded complex societies, while other research, such as a study of Eurasian empires, found that moralizing gods followed the rise of complex societies.
But those studies were limited in geographic scope and hampered, at times, because historians lacked detailed information on the complexity of societies at given points in history, said Patrick Savage, an anthropologist at Keio University in Kanagawa, Japan. In the new study, Savage and his colleagues sought to overcome these limitations using the Seshat: Global History Databank, a database of information about global history from the end of the Paleolithic period up to the Industrial Revolution.