Ritual and Social Complexity: Predictions



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Over the last 12 months the quantity of data gathered by the Seshat team quadrupled, from some 20,000 to nearly 90,000. You can see the data counter on the Seshat project web page.


data points collected…and

In the next two months the data count is sure to go over the symbolic threshold of 100,000. At the same time, we should achieve a great degree of coverage of historic and prehistoric societies included in our World Sample-30 (s0 called because we use 30 geographic locations spread around the world as a sampling scheme, scoring data for all polities that occupied the location from the Neolithic to the Industrial Revolutions). Thus, we are getting very close to the tie when we begin analyzing these data.

Before the analysis, however, we are rushing to publish our predictions. Yes, we are using the good old scientific method, in which theoretical predictions are published first, and only then we look at data to see which of the alternative theories is better supported.


We published the first batch of predictions in 2012, and the second batch earlier this year. The first article focused on the roles played by agricultural productivity and warfare in the evolution of social complexity. The second article was concerned with the evolution of hierarchy and inequality, which possibly co-evolved with social complexity and warfare. The third batch of predictions concerns the role of ritual in the evolution of social complexity, and has just been published on the Social Evolution Forum.


Devotees carry a statue of the elephant god Ganesh, the deity of prosperity, for immersion in the sea

Let me say a few words about how these different predictions fit together. The central theory that we want to test is Cultural Multilevel Selection. It says basically that it is competition between societies that drives the evolution of large-scale societies. The most common form of intersocietal competition, until recently, has been, not to put too fine a point on it, war. So it is war that explains why over the last 10,000 years societies became larger and more complex.

This explanation is of the kind that evolutionary scientists call “the ultimate causation,”—the deep evolutionary reason why something has evolved. A different level of explanation is to look for more “proximate” mechanisms. Thus, we can ask, what cultural elements were involved in making the transition to large-scale, complex societies possible? These proximate factors could involve different kinds of “glue” that bind together large-scale societies, make them more cohesive, more cooperative, and less likely to fall apart. One of such important kinds of glue is ritual (take a look at my previous blog post on this question that provides more detail).

The important point is that hypotheses about the role of warfare and of ritual in the evolution of complex societies are not theoretical alternatives—they actually work together, one being closer to ultimate causation and the other closer to proximate mechanisms. Or, if you prefer to think about this issue in another way, war was the selective force that selected for certain kinds of rituals that made large-scale societies possible.

What kinds of rituals? Read our SEF article to find out.

And take a look at this infographic, which the Seshat coordinator Jill Levine created to illustrate the predictions:

Ritual infographic


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Ross Hartshorn

If it’s two months until we get enough coverage in Seshat to test predictions, how long until we have a verdict on the predictions themselves?

Doug Jones

Religion in complex societies is likely to be complex, operate at multiple levels: Anthropologists (e.g. I M Lewis) sometimes distinguish between central and peripheral cults in complex societies. For example in Lewis’s work among Somalis, the central official religion was fairly standard Islam with its various official observances, but there were also “possession cults” in which women (overwhelmingly) were taken over by “zar” spirits (local versions of genies) and had to go through expensive exorcisms to drive the spirits out. Women were especially likely to be possessed when their husbands were looking for new wives. So the peripheral cults in these societies are closer to the dysphoric identity-fusing rituals of smaller scale societies, but marginalized, practiced especially by subordinate groups, and not leading to war. In Brazil, Afro-Brazilian religions practiced in parallel with Catholicism are another example: leaders are disproportionately black and female, and ecstatic possession by African-derived deities is important.


Any kind of kultural rityals makes the individual’s reacting response more predictable. that allows to avoid meeting stress of unexpected novelity – is it not one of the main sense of any ritual constructing? (sure, there are several other aspects, but if not speaking on any disphoric aspects, if we regard, let’s say, somrthing that common as some “bon-ton” manners, like “the real gentleman always uses handkerchief, so you can always ask him for it in case of some emergency need” Something that seems that stable as gravity. Behavioral patterns the members of one society understand without any lomg word explanations.
Sure it is also powerful component of distinguishing “Friend or Foe” with all those consequesnces to warfare. But these are just consequences

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