ever-increasing capacity for lying."
For early societies making the first use of language, there had to be some context in which statements were reliably and indubitably true. That context, in Rappaport's view, was sanctity. This feature has been retained to a considerable degree in modern religions, which are centered around sacred truths, such as "The Lord Our God the Lord is One," or "There is no god but God." These sacred truths are unverifiable, and unfalsifiable, but the faithful nevertheless accept them to be unquestionable. In doing so, like assemblies of the faithful since the dawn of language, they bind themselves together for protection or common action against the unbelievers and their lies.
From his study of the Maring, primitive agriculturalists of the New Guinea central highlands, Rappaport also recognized that ritual was an essential source of authority in an egalitarian society without headmen or ruling elites. It was by their attendance at ritual dances that the Maring would commit themselves to fight as their host's allies in the next war cycle. "It is plausible to argue that religious ritual played an important role in social and ecological regulation during a time in human history when the arbitrariness of social conventions was increasing but it was not yet possible for authorities, if they existed at all, to enforce compliance," he wrote.
Rappaport's ideas about the role of religion in early societies have been buttressed by a remarkable series of excavations in the Oaxaca valley of Mexico. The archaeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent V. Flannery traced the development of religion over a 7,000-year period as the people of the valley went through four stages of social development, from hunters and gatherers, to a settled egalitarian society, to a society ruled by an elite, and finally to an archaic state known as the Zapotec state. As the Oaxacan people's society evolved, so too did their form of religion.199
At the hunting and gathering stage, Joyce and Flannery found signs of a plain dance floor, its sides marked by stones. The dance floor, assuming it was used like those of modern hunter-gatherers, would have been the site of ritual dancing on ad hoc occasions when many different groups came together for initiations and courtship.
By 1500 BC the Oaxacans had developed strains of maize that allowed them to settle down and practice agriculture (the reverse of the sequence in the Near East, where settlement long preceded agriculture). At first their society was egalitarian, as it had been in their hunter-gatherer days, but their rituals became more formal. Marcus and Flannery have excavated four men's houses, all oriented in the same direction, which may have been determined by the sun's path at spring equinox. The orientation suggests that religious ceremonies were now held at fixed times, determined by astronomical events. The men's houses, to judge by practice in contemporary societies, may have been open only to men who had passed acceptability tests and been initiated into secret rituals.
By 1150 BC the third stage of society had began to emerge, with an elite who lived in large houses, wore jade-studded clothes and deformed their skulls in childhood as a sign of nobility. The men's houses were replaced with temples, also oriented in the same direction. Religious practice had become more elaborate, the archaeologists found, with ritual bloodletting, a symbolic self-sacrifice, and the cooking and eating of sacrificial victims.
The fourth stage of society, the Zapotec state, which was founded in 500 BC, was accompanied by a more complex form of religion. The temples now had rooms for a special caste of religious officers, the priests.
The advent of the priests marked the culmination of a steady trend in the evolution of Oaxacan ritual, its growing exclusivity. At the hunter-gatherer stage, the ritual dances were open to everyone. By the time of the men's houses, only initiated members of the public could participate in rituals, and by the stage of the Zapotec state, religion had come under the control of a special priestly caste.
What underlay this coevolution of religion with social structure? It seems that the important coordinating role of ritual in hunter-gatherer societies did not end when leaders and elites emerged in settled societies. Instead, the elites coopted the ritual practices as another mechanism of social control and as a means of justifying their privileged position. Making the religion more exclusionary gave the elites greater power to control the believers. To justify the ruler's position, new truths, also unverifiable and unfalsifiable, were added as subtexts to the religion's sacred postulates, such as "The chief has great mana," "Pharaoh is the living Horus," or "Henry is by the Grace of God King." Rappaport believed that the conditions that enabled authorities to exercise civil power emerged only recently, and that for much of human existence rulers invoked sanctity as a principal source of their authority. Even archaic states were theocratic, at least to begin with. Modern states too, despite the ample civil power at their disposal, have not entirely dispensed with appeals to religious cohesion and authority. Even in a society like that of the United States, political allegiance is sealed with the declaration of "One nation under God." Religion's other ancient role, that of protecting the community from freeloaders, can also been seen still at work in contemporary societies. Among ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York's diamond district, the level of trust is so high that multimillion-dollar deals can be sealed by a handshake. Islam is said to have spread through Africa as a facilitator of trade and
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