The potential for rituals in non-human great apes (apes) is an understudied topic. We derive a minimal definition of ritual and then examine the currently available evidence for it in untrained and non-enculturated apes. First, we examine whether such apes show evidence for the two main components of our minimal definition of ritual: symbolism and copying. Second, we examine if there are actual cases already identifiable today that may fit all aspects of our minimal definition of ritual—or whether there are at least cases that fit some aspects (proto-ritual). We find that apes are not likely to spontaneously practise minimal ritual, but we claim that the highest expected likelihood of occurrence is in the results-copying domain. Yet, we did not find actual cases of minimal ritual in apes—including those involving environmental results. We did, however, find some cases that may match at least part of our minimal ritual definition—which we termed proto-ritual. At least two out of three potential cases of such proto-rituals that we identified (rain dance, object-in-ear and surplus nest-making procedures) do revolve around results. Overall, apes do not show much, or very clear, evidence for even minimal ritual, but may sometimes show proto-ritual. However, dedicated ape ritual studies are currently lacking, and future work may identify ape ritual (or clearer cases of proto-ritual). We discuss the implications of our preliminary finding for inferences of ritual in the last common ancestor of humans and apes. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Ritual renaissance: new insights into the most human of behaviours’.