Thursday, March 3, 2016

Chimpanzee Rituals?

No, not rituals involving chimpanzees, rituals performed by them. Chimps are our closest living relatives and share more than 99% of their DNA with humans. And recently, a group of biologists in the Republic of Guinea happened upon a group of chimps who engage in what might be some form of ritual behavior, which has previously only been identified in humans. After a wildlife camera captured a chimp picking up a stone, fixating on a particular tree, and then hurling the stone at it in such a way that the stone landed in a hollow within the tree, they investigated further and found that this was far from a unique occurrence.

I spent many months in the field, along with many other researchers, trying to figure out what these chimps are up to. So far we have two main theories. The behaviour could be part of a male display, where the loud bang made when a rock hits a hollow tree adds to the impressive nature of a display. This could be especially likely in areas where there are not many trees with large roots that chimps would normally drum on with their powerful hands and feet. If some trees produce an impressive bang, this could accompany or replace feet drumming in a display and trees with particularly good acoustics could become popular spots for revisits.

On the other hand, it could be more symbolic than that – and more reminiscent of our own past. Marking pathways and territories with signposts such as piles of rocks is an important step in human history. Figuring out where chimps' territories are in relation to rock throwing sites could give us insights into whether this is the case here. Even more intriguing than this, maybe we found the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees. Indigenous West African people have stone collections at “sacred” trees and such man-made stone collections are commonly observed across the world and look eerily similar to what we have discovered here.

The latter theory is the more compelling of the two, though it will need to be confirmed by subsequent research. It makes sense that if humans are built to perform rituals humans might be as well. But going a little further, what if these rituals confer some paranormal benefit upon the chimps that perform them? That's not something we're likely to hear a biologist address any time soon. But I could see where, for example, the rocks could serve as some sort of offering to forest or tree spirits who respond by providing them with good fortune. That might explain the survival benefit of performing them, and would provide one more piece of evidence testifying to the effectiveness of magical operations.

Or maybe these aren't rituals at all. It's just interesting to speculate on the ramifications if that's what they turn out to be.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble

No comments: