Capuchin Monkey Rituals: An Interdisciplinary Study of Form and Function


Many white-faced capuchin monkey dyads in Lomas Barbudal, Costa Rica, practise idiosyncratic interaction sequences that are not part of the species-typical behavioural repertoire. These interactions often include uncomfortable or risky elements. These interactions exhibit the following characteristics commonly featured in definitions of rituals in humans: (i) they involve an unusual intensity of focus on the partner, (ii) the behaviours have no immediate utilitarian purpose, (iii) they sometimes involve ‘sacred objects’, (iv) the distribution of these behaviours suggests that they are invented and spread via social learning, and (v) many behaviours in these rituals are repurposed from other behavioural domains (e.g. extractive foraging). However, in contrast with some definitions of ritual, capuchin rituals are not overly rigid in their form, nor do the sequences have specific opening and closing actions. In our 9260 h of observation, ritual performance rate was uncorrelated with amount of time dyads spent in proximity but (modestly) associated with higher relationship quality and rate of coalition formation across dyads. Our results suggest that capuchin rituals serve a bond-testing rather than a bond-strengthening function. Ritual interactions are exclusively dyadic, and between-dyad consistency in form is low, casting doubt on the alternative hypothesis that they enhance group-wide solidarity. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Ritual renaissance: new insights into the most human of behaviours’.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences