Many wars in recent years have been fought in the name of various religions, and it now appears the conflict caused by such beliefs was also raging as far back as 700BC.
A new study has found that the rise of religious beliefs across Mesoamerica led to an increase in political and social conflict.
In some regions it resulted in local religious leaders, while in others it created a centralised religious state.
The research reveals the importance of religious beliefs in both outcomes, despite them being vastly different, and proves how religion has been influencing politics for centuries.
More than 2,000 years ago, powerful states emerged covering swathes of the Central American region, which covers present day Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
Mesoamerica gave rise to numerous advanced early cultures during its history.
These included the ancient Olmecs through to the rise of the powerful Maya, and eventually the Aztecs, each with their own political systems and religious beliefs.
But did religion bind or divide these complex early cultures?
To explore the interplay between politics and religion in early Mesoamerica, archaeologists from the University of Central Florida (UCF) and University of Colorado Boulder focused on the period from 700BC to 250AD, a time at which this powerful states first emerged in the region.
Two regions in particular were studied – the Lower Rio Verde Valley and the Valley of Oaxaca, both in Mexico.
The team found that in Rio Verde, the religious beliefs of the peoples hindered a move towards centralised power.
In particular, in the lower Verde, religious rituals involving offerings and the burial of people in cemeteries at smaller communities created strong ties to the local community that impeded the creation of state institutions.
Religious conflict between local groups and people looking to create a centralised power were neutralised quickly.
While in the Valley of Oaxaca, religious tensions had a different effect.
An elite of priests and holy people intersected and acted as middlemen between the people and their gods.
This paved the way for a shift in power, which caused conflict with local leaders.
Eventually, this conflict culminated in the emergence of a regional state with its capital at the hilltop city of Monte Albán.
Even though both regions had vastly different outcomes, religion may have been fundamental in triggering the tensions and conflict through which large scale political change came about.
‘In both the Valley of Oaxaca and the Lower Río Verde Valley, religion was important in the formation and history of early cities and states, but in vastly different ways,’ said Professor Arthur Joyce, an archaeologist from University of Colorado Boulder and lead author on the study.
‘Given the role of religion in social life and politics today, that shouldn’t be too surprising.’
The findings are published in the journal Current Anthropology.
‘An innovative aspect of our research is to view the burials of ancestors and ceremonial offerings in the lower Verde as essential to these ancient communities,’ said Professor Joyce.
‘Such a perspective is also more consistent with the world views of the Native Americans that lived there.’
Dr Sarah Barber, an archaeologist from UCF and author of the study, commented: ‘It doesn’t matter if we today don’t share particular religious beliefs, but when people in the past acted on their beliefs, those actions could have real, material consequences.’
‘It really behooves us to acknowledge religion when considering political processes,’ she added.