2018 Hellman Fellow
Assistant Professor, Anthropology
Project Title: The origin and spread of ritual
Project Description: The pervasiveness of religious ritual presents an evolutionary puzzle to social scientists. Why do people the world over engage in time consuming activities that are ineffective at achieving their purported goals? Experimental and cross-cultural work suggests rituals may promote cooperation and group solidarity. However, these results may explain the maintenance of ritual better than its origins. For example, it is likely that ritual promotes cooperation only if it is already broadly socially accepted, and therefore an indicator of common knowledge, norm adherence, or similar social networks. This means that the origins of ritual presents a larger evolutionary puzzle, and may require different explanations than the persistence of ritual. For this project I will take advantage of a rare opportunity to study the origins and spread of a new ritual to understand why people adopt novel religious behaviors and ideas. Five years ago a villager noticed an apparition of Jesus’ face on a rocky outcrop near a field site in the Peruvian altiplano where I have been working since 2007. A year later villagers near the site started formally celebrating the apparition on August 6th, the same day as the much more established colonial pilgrimage site at Copacabana, about a 5 hours drive away. At both sites the yearly celebrations are syncretic, combining Catholic and indigenous religious traditions including priests and shamans, supernatural apparitions of Jesus and toads, offerings of candles and coca leaves. Importantly, there is not yet a local consensus about the merit and efficacy of this new religious site, and various ritual practices associated with it. We will examine who adopts religious practices and beliefs, who remains skeptical, and the dynamics that lead to the spread, or rejection, of new ideas.