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Ritual, Play and Belief, in Evolution and Early Human Societies

Ritual, Play and Belief, in Evolution and Early Human Societies

Edited by Colin Renfrew, Iain Morley, and Michael Boyd. Pp. xiv + 340. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2018. $120. ISBN 978-1-107-14356-2 (cloth). 

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This edited volume brings together an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, biological anthropologists, animal ethologists, and psychologists to explore the shared cognitive and evolutionary foundations of play, ritual, and sport. Inspired by Huizinga’s theory of Homo ludens, authors in part 1 of the compendium debate whether the “the primaeval soil of play” (32) underwrote the development of creativity, art, and religion in early human societies. In addition, they explore both structural similarities and differences between play behaviors and ritual while attempting to define these critical concepts within a long-term evolutionary framework. Burghardt traces the evolution of different modes of play in animals, primates, and humans, while Bateson, Morley, and Daissanayake consider whether the development of pretend and imaginative play, unique to only the more advanced hominins and Homo sapiens in particular, laid the groundwork for representation, pretense, and innovation. Part 2 (chs. 8–13) departs from the first section and presents archaeological research on Maya ballgames (Freidel, Rich); dancing in the American southeast (Halley); temple construction as a vehicle of community integration in Early Neolithic southwest Asia (Watkins); ancient masquerade (Garfinkel); Chinese animal symbolism in ritual and music (Sterckx); and feasting and animal sacrifice in Neolithic Malta (Malone). Play is superficially treated and undertheorized in this section, and aspects of “playful behavior” are simply identified in material and iconographic signatures of ritualistic practices. Part 3 (chs. 14–18) examines the close association of games, sports, ritual, and learning, including Mesoamerican boxing and ballgames (Taube), initiatory bull leaping in Egypt and the Aegean (Morgan, Marinatos), and Greek epic games (Spivey). The final three chapters in part 4 attempt to synthesize the insights and reconcile some of the disagreements presented in the preceding case studies.

The various authors concur that play is more difficult to define than ritual, explaining why archaeologists have rarely considered the former in their studies. Indeed, the volume reveals that much more research is required to decipher this central relationship, as it remains unresolved whether pretend play—uniquely defining early childhood development in our species (between 3 and 6.2 years of age)—constituted a cause or simply a by-product of the evolution of increased cognitive and social capacities (Morley [ch. 6]). If ritual is also epiphenomenal to the broader evolution of human cognition, then the causative link between play and religion becomes questionable. Burghardt, Dissanayake, Malafouris, and Morley contend that “play is a foundation for all complex culture” (75), while Renfrew, Bateson, and Osborne are more skeptical of the etiological primacy of play, recognizing similarities based on analogy as opposed to direct evolution. Smith and Kyriakidis identify a closer parallel between ritual and rule-governed games than with playful make-believe, while Morley contends that the capacity for performance and mimesis underlies these distinct but related behaviors. Bateson questions Burghardt’s theory that play characterizes nonmammalian animals, and the authors are not even in complete agreement on the role of play in child development or the honing of social skills.

In fact, the volume editors show that the differences between ritual and play tend to outweigh the similarities. Certainly both can be defined by comparable degrees of repetition and stereotypic behavior as well as by a similar material corpora, including figurines, miniatures (toys), and related surrogates. The latter provide the material scaffolding for effectively grasping abstract beliefs and engagng with imagined phenomena (Malafouris). However, ritual is thought to be characterized by greater invariance, earnestness, and instrumentality, and it commonly serves to counter stressful situations and reduce ambivalence (both in instinctual animal behaviors such as mating rituals and in human religious ceremonies). Of course, certain rituals can also intensify ambivalence and destabilize social relations, revealing the shortcoming of functionalist explanations—the dominant theoretical approach of the volume. In contrast, play occurs most often in positive, stress-free environments and is rarely goal-driven. Certainly, there is no direct correlation between the co-occurrence of play and ritualism in specific human societies. Smith notes that hunter-gathers are more tolerant of child play than agriculturalists, whose children are expected to work at a much earlier age. However, foragers are not more religious than farmers as a consequence. Moreover, it seems counterintuitive that playful behavior was a precondition for the evolution of ToM (theory of mind) and HADD (hyperactive agency detection device) as suggested by Burghardt, Smith, and Morley, since the ascription of intentionality and mind to other entities is argued to have evolved as an adaptation to stressful situations, including predation and related threats.

In their concluding chapters, Osborne and Morley stress that the fundamental commonality linking ritual and play is their “special ontological status” vis-à-vis normative, quotidian behavior (318–19). Play (make-believe) entails a suspension of belief, while religion rests on the suspension of disbelief; in the former, then, what is occurring is knowingly not happening (say pretending to fly a spaceship) while in the latter more is happening than experienced given the immanence of invisible supernaturals or other-than-human powers in ritually framed events. This is an intriguing and interesting insight and one worth pursuing in future research. Nevertheless, the “everyday” becomes an undertheorized foil that lumps together all other human behaviors beyond ritual and play. Of course, Goffman argued that all social transactions, ranging from the quotidian to the spectacular, are mediated by a degree of contrivance and shifting performative frames, while Levi-Strauss proposed that classificatory distinctions predicated on animal speciation was foundational to human thought. Therefore, the prominence of animal symbolism in ritual and play is not all that surprising nor is it necessarily indicative of their exceptional ontological status.

In fact, a vast anthropological literature on spectacle, performance, and ritual is ignored in the volume, and surprisingly little attention is given to issues of power and ideology that have secured center stage in archaeological studies of ritual and sport. Despite the focus on play as the evolutionary wellspring of creativity and symbolism (metarepresentation), there is a general elision of the diverse and innovative meanings generated in the framework of ritualized or playful behavior. As mentioned, the social and biological functions of ritual—to integrate groups (Garfinkel, Watkins), foster cooperation (Dissanayake, Halley), alleviate food shortages (Malone), and so forth—are emphasized in several chapters at the expense of understanding how rituals crystallized exceptional beliefs and contested or inventively reconstituted social orders. Dissanayake contends that “art-like behaviours” are the precondition for ritual and that practices employing aesthetic devices promote group solidarity while relieving “individual and group anxiety” (94). However, even a cursory consideration of the theories of Gell among others exposes the problems with this perspective; past and present “art” can also act to disrupt worldviews, unsettle normative assumptions, precipitate violence, and induce intense and conflicted emotional reactions. In a similar manner, Garfinkel, in the present volume, assumes that the wearing of identical masks in the early Near East expressed group integration and equality. However, he fails to consider that such anonymous and homogenizing masks may have served to manage extreme alterity and materialize ontologically distinct ancestral powers (and some of the remarkable masks and images he analyzes are associated with mortuary contexts).

Osborne rightly criticizes the sidelining of belief in the volume, and the most engaging chapters are careful to historicize the relationship between play, ideology, and ritual in ancient societies. For instance, Taube reveals that the Olmec ball game and Zapotec boxing were concerned not with play but with fertility, water, rainmaking, and cosmic renewal. Bull games depicted in the Aegean and Minoan palaces also provided much more than entertainment, being highly ritualized and associated with male initiation rites and possibly goddess worship (Morgan, Marinatos). However, Sterckx demonstrates that the Chinese made a moral distinction between play, games, and religious ritual.

In the end, the evolutionary interrelationship between play and ritual remains poorly understood, and the volume merits praise for addressing this complex subject. The infancy of research on the topic can explain the lack of scientific facts backing certain claims in the book’s part 1. Also, readers will be critical of some of the untested generalizations or speculative asides made in the compendium, such as the parallel drawn between religious pilgrimage and animal breeding migration (Renfrew); the argument that in human evolution trance preceded prayer and sacrifice and rituals are analogous to pheromones in transferring information (Garfinkel); or the conclusion that island environments experiencing food shortages tend to invest heavily in ritual (Malone). Kyriakidis identifies some useful criteria to distinguish ritual and games, but they certainly cannot be applied universally. For instance, he argues that unlike sport events, ritual is defined by a “passive intention-in-action” (302). However, this would poorly characterize certain sacrificial rites or even the cosmic ball games discussed by Freidel and Rich or Taube. Moreover, Kyriakidis argues that rituals differ from games in terms of their greater invariance, reduced risk, and rigidly prescribed sequence of behaviors. In contrast, the outcomes of games are less predictable. Nevertheless, the end results of divinatory ritual, revelation, or encounters with oracles are often unpredictable, dangerous, and unexpectedly transformative.

Despite my criticisms above, perhaps unavoidable given the vastness of the subject, the volume should appeal widely to researchers and graduate students interested in the anthropology of play, ritual, and religion.

Edward Swenson
Department of Anthropology
University of Toronto

Book Review of Ritual, Play and Belief, in Evolution and Early Human Societies, edited by Colin Renfrew, Iain Morley, and Michael Boyd

Reviewed by Edward Swenson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.swenson

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