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Population structured by witchcraft beliefs

Mace, RH; Thomas, M; Wu, J; (2018) Population structured by witchcraft beliefs. Nature Human Behaviour , 2 pp. 39-44. 10.1038/s41562-017-0271-6. Green open access

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Anthropologists have long argued that fear of victimization through witchcraft accusations promotes cooperation in small-scale societies1. Others have argued that witchcraft beliefs undermine trust and therefore reduce social cohesion2. However, there are very few, if any, quantified empirical examples demonstrating how witchcraft labels can structure cooperation in real human communities. Here we show a case from a farming community in China where people labelled zhu were thought capable of supernatural activity, particularly poisoning food. The label was usually applied to adult women heads of household and often inherited down the female line. We found that those in zhu households were less likely to give or receive gifts or farm help to or from non-zhu households; nor did they have sexual partnerships or children with those in non-zhu households. However, those in zhu households did preferentially help and reproduce with each other. Although the tag is common knowledge to other villagers and used in cooperative and reproductive partner choice, we found no evidence that this assortment was based on cooperativeness or quality. We favour the explanation that stigmatization originally arose as a mechanism to harm female competitors. Once established, fear that the trait is transmissible may help explain the persistence of this deep-rooted cultural belief.

Type: Article
Title: Population structured by witchcraft beliefs
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1038/s41562-017-0271-6
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0271-6
Language: English
Additional information: This version is the author accepted manuscript. For information on re-use, please refer to the publisher’s terms and conditions.
Keywords: Biological anthropology, Cultural evolution, Human behaviour
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of Anthropology
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10041599
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