Imagine you are crossing the barren wind-swept Central Asian steppe when off in the distance you spot an odd-looking mound of rocks and tree branches adorned with brightly colored silk scarves whipping about. Squinting against the sun and dust, you spy a man – a fellow traveler – stopping by the mound. You watch curiously as he circles slowly, reverently about the mound. He tosses a few trinkets on it (coins maybe, hard to tell from so far away), ties another scarf to it, and then after pausing briefly as if in prayer, he continues on his way. As an outsider, you find both the mound and the man quite strange. But to the herders who have traversed these steppes for centuries, it is all very familiar, and – as some recent research has found – informative.
The mound is a ritual cairn (rhymes with “urn”) or ovaa in the native language and they are found all across south-central Siberia and Mongolia. While cairns often mark territorial borders, their significance is as much religious as political. They are closely associated with traditional spiritualism and shamanism. Though Buddhism and Christianity have penetrated into the Central Asian steppes, many people continue to adhere to traditional shamanistic and animistic religious practices. Included among those practices is the surrendering of offerings, such as money or silk scarves, at cairns. Stopping to perform a cairn ritual is thought to be pleasing to the local spirit-masters. However, along with supernatural functions, the ritual offering may also serve an important practical function.
There’s a scene in the movie “Patton” where after banishing the Nazis from Sicily, the famed American general climbs the steps of an old cathedral, kneels and kisses the ring of the local bishop. Despite being the conqueror, Patton is still a stranger in a strange land and this ritual act conveys his good intentions. “I respect your ways. I honor your traditions.” Anthropologist Ben Purzycki wondered if cairn rituals served a similar purpose. Were they a way of signaling good intentions to the locals? Herders and other pastoralists across the central Asian steppes are frequently on the move, cutting across territorial boundaries. Maybe this simple ritual was a way of saying “I’m one of you. I honor the same spirits. I hold the same values.”
To test this he a gave locals a series of scenarios where a man was described as either being religiously observant (and therefore always performing cairn rituals) or non-observant (thus never performing rituals). They were then given a series of question on which they were to rate the man’s perceived trustworthiness: How honest do think he is? How trustworthy? Would he return money if you lent it to him? Would your children be safe if he watched over them? The results showed that someone described as scrupulously performing cairn rituals was perceived as being more trustworthy than someone who did not. Furthermore, failing to perform cairn rituals had equally negative effects on perceived trustworthiness regardless of whether the man was described as being of the same religious or ethnic group as the respondent or not (note: ethnicity had a minor but statistically non-significant effect on perceived trustworthiness).
The results suggest that ritual observance was being used as an important indicator of trustworthiness. Making an offering at a ritual cairn is a bit of a bother. One could just as easily pass it by and keep one’s coins and scarves for more useful purposes. But that’s whole point. The fact that it is a bother and yet some people stop anyway says something about their character (or at least it is perceived to say something).
Ritual is often defined by the fact that it involves actions that appear to have no goal; that seem to accomplish nothing. However, it is because ritual fails to secure the tangible that effectively signals the intangible – our values.
Ritual Behavior and Trust in the Tyva Republic, Benjamin Grant Purzycki and Tayana Arakchaa Current Anthropology, Vol. 54, No. 3 (June 2013), pp. 381-388