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Religion, Brain & Behavior
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rrbb20
Formalized rituals may have preceded the
emergence of religions
To cite this article: Martin Lang (2023): Formalized rituals may have preceded the emergence
of religions, Religion, Brain & Behavior, DOI: 10.1080/2153599X.2023.2168737
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2023.2168737
Published online: 14 Mar 2023.
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Formalized rituals may have preceded the emergence of religions
LEVYNA: Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic
Robin Dunbar’s book How Religion Evolved brings back the ethos of “big theories”that was charac-
teristic of scholars of religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the previous
approaches were rightfully criticized for unilinear views of cultural evolution, the aftermath of
these critiques condemned (perhaps a bit prematurely) big theories to oblivion (Kundt, 2015).
With novel tools for understanding biological and cultural evolution at our hands, it may be a
good time to carefully reinvigorate “big theorizing”in a more informed way and ask, as Dunbar
does, how religion evolved. The target book represents a valuable step in this direction and provides
a general model suggesting that religions ﬁrst evolved as animistic traditions emerging from indi-
vidual mystical experiences and later merged into cultural systems facilitating social bonding and
While I agree that religions (or, more speciﬁcally, religious systems) evolved, and we may expect
the evolution to be cumulative (building on previous adaptations), I have an alternative view of the
timing and sequence of these evolutionary events. Speciﬁcally, I will focus my commentary on Dun-
bar’s proposition about the function of religious ritual and the timing of its evolution. Since ritual
behavior is an essential component of any functioning religious system (Sosis, 2016,2019), the way
we model the evolution of ritual will determine our general understanding of the evolution of
Consistently with Dunbar’s previous work (Dunbar, 1998a,1998b), the main lens used to explain
the evolution of religious ritual in the target book is through social bonding. Religious ritual is pos-
ited as a social mechanism—alongside laughter, singing, dancing, and storytelling—that facilitates
interpersonal bonding (p. 102). Nevertheless, the author argues that compared to these other activi-
ties, religious ritual has an additional aspect that promotes aﬀection to immaterial supernatural
agents, similar to romantic relationships (p. 104). Dunbar distinguishes three diﬀerent types of reli-
gious ritual by the required eﬀort: while low-eﬀort rituals serve personal needs, middle-eﬀort rituals
are collective and often include mechanisms of social bonding: singing, dancing, or rhythmic chant-
ing (p. 135). Extreme rituals are then interpreted through the lens of costly signaling theory. Again,
adiﬀerence is drawn between religious ritual and the other bonding mechanism, this time based on
the deﬁnition of ritual as an activity that has “meaning”(p. 130; p. 143). Another glimpse into the
author’s understanding of the evolution of rituals is his placement of the ﬁrst appearance of “formal
rituals”in the Sumer and Egypt civilizations (p. 190). These formal rituals used prescribed action
sequences to appease capricious gods and were associated with rules, norms, and discipline (p. 195).
From these various arguments, it may be deduced that Dunbar thinks informal religious rituals
evolved ﬁrst to facilitate social bonding. Since religious ritual presumes the existence of beliefs in
supernatural agents that lend rituals their meaning, the appearance of these rituals should logically
follow the evolution of fully symbolic communication and a system of shared supernatural beliefs
(associated with H. sapiens). Formal rituals would appear only much later with the onset of large-
scale societies and a priestly caste to perform them (p. 190), facilitating institutionalized communi-
cation with supernatural agents.
© 2023 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Martin Lang firstname.lastname@example.org
RELIGION, BRAIN & BEHAVIOR
Although I agree that formal rituals serve a diﬀerent function than social bonding, I disagree
about the nature of this function and the timing of its evolution. The formalization of behavioral
procedures is one of the deﬁning aspects of ritual (Rappaport, 1999; Sosis & Alcorta, 2003) that
is well documented across small-scale societies (e.g., Rappaport, 2000). While rituals sometimes
change and comprise an aspect of spontaneity, they are recognized precisely by their formalization,
rigidity, and repetitiveness (Boyer & Liénard, 2006; Xygalatas, 2022). Since the presence of forma-
lization in rituals is diﬃcult, if not impossible, to discern from the archaeological record, it follows
that we cannot know about its historical existence unless someone wrote about their formalized
rituals. Thus, placing the ﬁrst formalized rituals into the Sumer and Egypt civilizations may be
biased exactly because those were the ﬁrst civilizations that used writing to document their rituals
(Beheim et al., 2021).
The widespread presence of ritual formalization across small-scale societies warrants a question
of whether formalized rituals might have evolved before the Holocene. To answer this question, we
ﬁrst need to re-examine the function of formalization. Following Rapappaport (1999) and Sosis and
Alcorta (2003), I understand collective ritual as a communication platform (Lang, 2019). Together
with Radek Kundt (Lang & Kundt, in press), we documented this communicative function of col-
lective rituals across hunter-gatherer groups and argued that this function drove the evolution of
rituals. Speciﬁcally, we argued that rituals evolved to facilitate dyadic and, later, within-group
cooperation using signals of interpersonal similarity, coalitional membership, and commitment
to group norms. The ﬁrst class of signals pertains to the simplest expression of similarity via behav-
ioral mimicry (implying aligned interests). Coalitional signals (e.g., a visual mark) are more abstract
because they indicate willingness to partake in a speciﬁc collective action. Finally, commitment sig-
nals (e.g., painful body modiﬁcation) indicate the strength of commitment to the speciﬁc collective
action and are the most cognitively demanding from the three signals.
Based on the inferred presence of selective pressures and the necessary cognitive machinery
underlying the three types of signals, we suggested that the ﬁrst ritualized communicative ges-
tures—similarity signals—might have been present already in H. ergaster (1.76 mya). Coalitional
signals, on the other hand, would be feasible only much later (550 kya) and associated with the
African and Eurasian assemblage of fossils labeled as H. heidelbergensis. Commitment signals would
be the last to evolve (300 kya) and associated with the transition from H. heidelbergensis to
archaic H. sapiens. Following this evolutionary sequence, we argued that rituals formed a proto-
communication system that was not necessarily symbolic (Lang & Kundt, in press).
Importantly, while we favored the communicative function of ritual as the main driver of its
evolution, this is not to say that rituals do not aﬀect social bonding via mechanisms suggested
by Dunbar. However, since these other bonding mechanisms (laughter, storytelling, music pro-
duction) do not need to be ritualized (i.e., formalized) to generate the bonding eﬀects, it leaves
unexplained the widespread formalization of rituals (i.e., their rigidity and repetitiveness). We
argued that formalizing ritual gestures is crucial if the main function of ritual is communicative
because formalization indicates a need for signal clarity. While Dunbar acknowledges that rituals
may also communicate group membership and commitment (p. 135), this function is rather dimin-
ished in the target book in favor of the bonding function.
If our assumption about the communicative function of collective ritual and its evolution is cor-
rect, it would mean that rituals may have substantially pre-dated the emergence of religious systems.
Shifting the order of these evolutionary sequences has essential implications on the possible path-
ways to the emergence of shared religious beliefs. Assuming for the sake of the argument that belief
in supernatural agents emerged as a product of the mystical stance in the form of animistic beliefs
(p. 7-8), it remains to be explained how our ancestors coordinated on shared beliefs in particular
supernatural agents. While Dunbar acknowledges that these early supernatural beliefs were likely
individual (p. 174), collectively shared belief in a supernatural agent (be it a forest spirit or a mor-
alizing deity) is arguably a necessary pre-condition for a cultural system to be identiﬁed as religious.
This condition is even more important if religions should play a role in creating communities, as the
author argues (p. 15).
Symbolic communication is one pathway to reach a consensus about a shared belief when there
is no interpersonal conﬂict of interest implied by the belief (Rappaport, 1999; Számadó, 2010).
However, if an interaction with the supernatural agent requires resource allocation from the
group (e.g., sacriﬁce), a within-group consensus and commitment to appeasing a particular super-
natural agent become crucial. Dunbar’s model lacks an explicit explanation of this transitory period,
leaving the question of how early religious systems (or immersive religions) would facilitate group
bonding. If immersive religions created communities only through social bonding mechanisms
related to group performance (dance, music, etc.), is it analytically useful to call these social systems
If, on the other hand, ritualized commitment signals evolved before religious beliefs, as we have
argued (Lang & Kundt, in press), it might be speculated that such rituals facilitated the transition
from individual to collective beliefs. That is, ritualized commitment signals would give archaic
humans a tool to honestly express their support for a speciﬁc supernatural agent, binding our ances-
tors into religious communities. Only then would supernatural beliefs give meaning to ritual, mak-
ing ritual religious with all its implications and functions suggested by Dunbar. While this is a
speculative proposition, such a feedback-loop mechanism (ritual giving rise to collective beliefs
that modify ritual) is typical for complex adaptive systems (Lang & Kundt, 2020) and may explain
how religious beliefs and behaviors have propelled each other to the present time.
1. Based on our deﬁnition of coalitional signals (Lang & Kundt, in press), it could be argued that sharing super-
natural beliefs might have been possible even without language. If an individual acted to aﬀect a supernatural
being they perceived, others in their coalition repeating this action would have gained a rudimentary under-
standing that the action is addressed to an imperceptible being. However, such sharing of supernatural beliefs
would be necessarily vague. Yet, even with a fully evolved symbolic language to communicate these superna-
tural beliefs, it could be argued that ritualized coalitional signals would be a better communicative vehicle for
sharing beliefs than symbolic language. Given that rituals are performative and this performance is under-
stood by the whole group (due to ritual formalization), the ritual act is an unequivocal signal of membership
in a speciﬁc“belief group”(Rappaport, 1999). I am grateful to Radek Kundt for this insight.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Martin Lang http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2231-1059
Beheim, B., Atkinson, Q., Bulbulia, J., Gervais, W., Gray, R., Henrich, J., Lang, M., Monroe, M., Muthukrishna, M.,
Norenzayan, A., Purzycki, B., Shariﬀ, A., Slingerland, E., Spicer, R., & Willard, A. (2021). Treatment of missing
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Lang, M., & Kundt, R. (In press). The evolution of human ritual behavior as a cooperative signaling platform. Religion,
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Lang, M. (2019). The evolutionary paths to collective rituals: An interdisciplinary perspective on the origins and func-
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Lang, M., & Kundt, R. (2020). Evolutionary, cognitive, and contextual approaches to the study of religious systems.
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Rappaport, R. (1999). Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.
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Sosis, R. (2016). Religions as complex adaptive systems. In N. Clements (Ed.), Religion: Mental religion (pp. 219–236).
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Theory,5(4), 366–382. https://doi.org/10.1162/BIOT_a_00064
Xygalatas, D. (2022). Ritual: How seemingly senseless acts make life worth living. Proﬁle Books.