Anthropology Animal Ritual
John Hartigan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0279


Rituals are a universal aspect of vertebrate life; they mediate interactions that range from routine to stressful. Rituals enable conspecifics (members of the same species) to reproduce successfully and to interact socially. Rituals feature repetitive, stereotyped behaviors that signal an animal’s disposition and catalytically enhance its capacity to act. That is, rituals are fundamentally communicative and performative. Through rituals, animals communicate their interests and perceive and perhaps acknowledge the interests of conspecifics—whether to mate or to fight, or to socialize and participate in an overarching social order. Our understanding of animal ritual has changed significantly over the last century, reflecting shifting theorizations of culture, evolution, and communication. Early ethologists and sociobiologists promoted a view of ritual as a set of evolved, innate behaviors, even evident in humans’ large-scale, collective ceremonies. Social theorists largely reject the evolutionary dimension of ritual behavior in humans and insisted that our species’ rituals are distinctive because they feature meanings—conventional forms of culturally imbibed signification. These contrasting perspectives are currently being synthesized as ethologists recognize that animals (at least social species) also have culture—socially learned and transmitted behavioral repertoires that are not genetically inherited. As animals are increasingly recognized as having forms of behavioral plasticity and large communicative capacities, the question is no longer whether meaning distinguishes between human and nonhuman forms of rituals; it’s whether or how the more developed theorization of ritual in humans pertains to and is applicable in analyzing other social species. There will be more than one answer to this question, depending upon the species but also the type of ritual under consideration. The most familiar and common rituals involve mating, with another related set featuring forms of fighting. In contrast with these often dramatic, energetic displays, rituals also manifest in mundane forms such as greetings and leave-taking. These communicative interactions signal a willingness by individual animals to comport themselves in accord with their shared social conventions. For ethologists, the underlying function of rituals is to diffuse or contain aggression. But this assumption leaves out a vast range of affiliative behaviors between conspecifics, such as grooming, which has shared features of rituals. Extending and deepening current understandings of animal rituals will require ethologists to engage with social theorists’ efforts to define and analyze rituals in humans. This extension of social theory to other species began in primatology and gradually is being extended to other taxa.

Evolutionary Perspectives

In the early 20th century, Julian Huxley first invoked “ritual” ethologically to describe mating patterns of the great crested grebe based on an intuition that some functional behaviors in animals evolve to serve instead as a form of communication: “I mean the gradual change of useful action into a symbol and then into a ritual” (Huxley 1914, p. 506). Huxley based this assessment on his field observations of the grebe’s distinctive “head-shaking ceremony,” which resignifies a form of aggression into a display of affection; the mating pairs’ sharp beaks—potential weapons—are ritually and intimately directed away from hazardous uses. Huxley’s insight that animal displays evolved to be socially communicative continues to inform the study of animal behavior today. Huxley’s concept of ritualization characterizes the evolutionary process by which a signal becomes increasingly conspicuous, stereotyped, and repetitious, featuring attention-attracting “alerting components.” The assumption that ritualized behaviors diffuse or contain potential aggression was extensively theorized by Nikolaas Tinbergen (Tinbergen 1964) and Konrad Lorenz (Lorenz 1963) in the 1950s and 1960s. But this narrow formulation gradually gave way to a more ample view of the range of emotions or affects subject to ritualization. In 1975, E.O. Wilson’s list of ritualized behaviors included food exchange (particularly in greeting ceremonies), predation, excretion and secretion, respiration, and flight. Ritualized displays are currently seen as also including ambivalence behavior, appeasement signaling, displacement behavior (when an animal is torn between conflicting drives), and motivational conflicts, which arise when an animal chooses between dissimilar desires or seeks to avoid two undesirable outcomes. Social integration signals feature particularly developed ritualization, involved in recognizing conspecifics and gender, group members and kin, rivals and mates, as well as friends. Male-female partnerships, parent-offspring relations of care, and group-mate interactions all hinge upon ritualized displays that make ongoing social integration possible, as summarized by Bradbury and Vehrencamp 2011.

  • Bradbury, J. W., and Sandra Lee Vehrencamp. 2011. Principles of animal communication. 2d ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

    This textbook provides copious examples of ritual forms of mating and combat but also social integration.

  • Huxley, Julian. 1914. The courtship habits of the great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus): With an addition to the theory of sexual selection. Proceedings of the General Meeting for Scientific Business of the Zoological Society of London 35: 491–562.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.1914.tb07052.x

    Huxley observed a series of rituals or “ceremonies” (preening, feeding, nest-building) by which a pair of birds stayed together through a long breeding season, well after coition. These rituals “made for an interplay of consciousness or emotion between them” (p. 516).

  • Lorenz, Konrad. 1963. On aggression. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

    Though many of the concepts Lorenz relied upon, such as instinct or fixed action patterns, were dropped as ethology modernized in the 1970s and 1980s, his insistence on aggression-suppression as the central evolutionary role of ritualization endures today.

  • Tinbergen, Nikolaas. 1964. Social behaviour in animals: With special reference to vertebrates. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Netherlands.

    Tinbergen’s analysis of social behavior began with the fundamental attraction between conspecifics, which creates possibilities for cooperative action. Rituals play a role at the most basic level of attraction—mating—but they also are evident in “maintenance” practices that enable social interactions. He highlighted “appeasement ceremonies,” which he equated with greeting rituals in humans, because they suppress possible aggression and create possibilities for ongoing and future contacts (pp. 47–48). Originally published 1953.

  • Wilson, Edward O. 1975. Sociobiology: The new synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press.

    In Wilson’s overview of ritualization, he notes that key concepts for Tinbergen and Lorenz (innate releasing mechanisms and conflict theory) had not been substantiated or demonstrated by subsequent research. This allowed Wilson to develop a more ample view of the range of rituals and an understanding of ritualization as “a pervasive, highly opportunistic evolutionary process” (p. 226).

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