Structural differences among individuals, genders and generations as the key for ritual transmission, stereotypy and flexibility

in Behaviour
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We analysed a Zulu wedding ritual, posing two questions: (i) what makes a ritual stereotyped and rigid along with preserving certain flexibility; and (ii) does a ritual pass between generations and individuals en bloc, or as a smaller subset of acts? We found that the ritual repertoire constituted only one act that was common to all individuals that performed the ritual. Repetitive performance of this act conveyed the impression of a stereotyped ritual. This structure eases the transmission of the ritual, since it is only necessary to learn the performance of one act that can then be embedded in a sequence of ‘free-style’ acts. Gender difference was minimal, but young women performed more acts than adults, perhaps as a reflection of them being inexperienced actors. Altogether, the present study unveils underlying mechanisms that seem to characterize the evolution of rituals and thereby highlighting a foundation of human cultural behaviour in general.

Structural differences among individuals, genders and generations as the key for ritual transmission, stereotypy and flexibility

in Behaviour



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  • View in gallery

    Representative snapshots of the various phases of one episode of the ‘Umsindo’ dance ritual. The beginning (a) is when an individual returns to the line after completing her performance (marked with a dashed arrow) and another individual steps forward to perform the ritual (marked with a solid arrow). She starts with a phase of idiosyncratic acts (b) followed by the ‘high kick’ (c). Another phase of idiosyncratic acts follows the high kick (d), and then the final phase, when the actor returns to the line while another one steps forward to perform the ritual (e). (From Keren et al., 2013b; with permission of the Journal’s Editor.)

  • View in gallery

    The prevalence of the various act types. Each of the acts performed by the three groups is listed on the abscissa, ranked from left to right according to its frequency from high to low. Using the procedure suggested by Clauset et al. (2009), this distribution is power-law-like, implying that there were a few acts with a relatively high frequency (leftmost bars), and many acts with low frequency (rightmost bars).

  • View in gallery

    The number of acts for each event (abscissa) are strongly correlated with the size of the repertoire (ordinal) for all groups (least-squares fit shown in light grey).

  • View in gallery

    The repertoire (a) total number of acts (b) and the rate of act repetition (c) are depicted for adult men (left), adult women (centre) and young women (right), with each of these groups separated by dashed lines. The abscissa depicts the number of individuals performing each act, and the ordinate depicts how many acts were in each category. (a) The repertoire (number of different acts) of the adult men (top left) is depicted so that the leftmost bar in this inset indicates that there were five acts that were each performed by only one individual; the 2nd and 3rd leftmost bars indicate that there were three acts that were each performed by two individuals, and three acts each performed by three individuals, and so on, until bar 15 (depicted in black in the men inset), indicating that there was only one act that was performed by all 15 men. The commonness of acts increases from left to right, with many uncommon (idiosyncratic) acts that were performed by only a few actors (left bars), a few common acts (right bars), and only one act that was performed by all 15 men (black bar). The same layout of the adult men repertoire was applied for the adult women (centre), and young women (right) repertoire. (b) The total number of acts is provided in the same format as that of the repertoire. However, while repetitions of the same acts are excluded in the repertoire (a), they are included here (b). As shown, the total number of times that the common acts were performed (right bars in each inset) was high, whereas the total number of performances of the idiosyncratic acts (left bars in each inset) was relatively low. The single common act (rightmost bar depicted in black) was thus the one that was typically performed more than any other act. (c) The rate of act repetition is reflected in the division of the above parameters (total number of acts divided by the repertoire). Specifically, in the adult men the leftmost bar (acts performed by only one individual) indicates a repertoire of five such acts (leftmost bar in a) that with repetitions were performed 16 times (leftmost bar in b). Accordingly the division of the total number of acts by the repertoire resulted in a rate of repetition of 3.2. As shown by this parameter, in all three groups the common acts were repeated intensively (high rate of repetition) whereas the idiosyncratic acts were seldom repeated.

  • View in gallery

    The commonness of the various acts in each of the groups, young women (), adult women () and men (). Commonness was scored as the percentage of individuals in each group performing each act. Accordingly, acts that were performed by all individuals in a group were scored as 100%, by half the individuals as 50%, and so on. As shown, there was only one act that was performed by all individuals in all three groups (a). There were acts that were relatively common in young women but not in adult women and men (b), and acts that were relatively common in adult women and men but not in young women (c). There were idiosyncratic acts that were performed by only the young women (d), or by only the adult women and men (e).

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