Getty
Show Hide image

Could chimpanzees have religion?

What we discovered was a repeated activity with no clear link to gaining food or status – it could be a ritual.

I trampled clumsily through the dense undergrowth, attempting in vain to go a full five minutes without getting snarled in the thorns that threatened my every move. It was my first field mission in the savannahs of the Republic of Guinea. The aim was to record and understand a group of wild chimpanzees who had never been studied before. These chimps are not lucky enough to enjoy the comforts of a protected area, but instead carve out their existence in the patches of forests between farms and villages.

We paused at a clearing in the bush. I let out a sigh of relief that no thorns appeared to be within reach, but why had we stopped? I made my way to the front of the group to ask the chief of the village and our legendary guide, Mamadou Alioh Bah. He told me he had found something interesting – some innocuous markings on a tree trunk. Something that most of us wouldn’t have even noticed in the complex and messy environment of a savannah had stopped him in his tracks. Some in our group of six suggested that wild pigs had made these marks, while scratching up against the tree trunk, others suggested it was teenagers messing around.

But Alioh had a hunch – and when a man that can find a single fallen chimp hair on the forest floor and can spot chimps kilometres away with his naked eye better than you can (with expensive binoculars) as a hunch, you listen to that hunch. We set up a camera trap in the hope that whatever made these marks would come back and do it again, but this time we would catch it all on film.

A world first

Camera traps automatically start recording when any movement occurs in front of them. For this reason they are an ideal tool for recording wildlife doing its own thing without any disturbance. I made notes to return to the same spot in two weeks (as that’s roughly how long the batteries last) and we moved on, back into the wilderness.

Whenever you return to a camera trap there is always a sense of excitement in the air of the mysteries that it could hold – despite the fact that most of our videos consisted of branches swaying in strong winds or wandering farmers’ cows enthusiastically licking the camera lens, there is an uncontrollable anticipation that maybe something amazing has been captured.

What we saw on this camera was exhilarating – a large male chimp approaches our mystery tree and pauses for a second. He then quickly glances around, grabs a huge rock and flings it full force at the tree trunk.

Selection of stone throwing behaviour, from carefully placing stones inside hollow trunks to full-on hurling. Video credit: Kühl et al (2016)

Nothing like this had been seen before and it gave me goose bumps. Jane Goodall first discovered wild chimps using tools in the 1960s. Chimps use twigs, leaves, sticks and some groups even use spears in order to get food. Stones have also been used by chimps to crack open nuts and cut open large fruit. Occasionally, chimps throw rocks in displays of strength to establish their position in a community.

But what we discovered during our now-published study wasn’t a random, one-off event, it was a repeated activity with no clear link to gaining food or status – it could be a ritual. We searched the area and found many more sites where trees had similar markings and in many places piles of rocks had accumulated inside hollow tree trunks – reminiscent of the piles of rocks archaeologists have uncovered in human history.

Videos poured in. Other groups working in our project began searching for trees with tell-tale markings. We found the same mysterious behaviour in small pockets of Guinea Bissau, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire but nothing east of this, despite searching across the entire chimp range from the western coasts of Guinea all the way to Tanzania.

Sacred trees

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.

Adult male tossing, hurling and banging a stone; stones accumulated in a hollow tree; typical stone throwing site; and stones in between large roots. Image: Author provided.

A vanishing world

To unravel the mysteries of our closest living relatives, we must make space for them in the wild. In the Ivory Coast alone, chimpanzee populations have decreased by more than 90 per cent in the past 17 years.

A devastating combination of increasing human numbers, habitat destruction, poaching and infectious disease severely endangers chimpanzees. Leading scientists warn us that, if nothing changes, chimps and other great apes will have only 30 years left in the wild. In the unprotected forests of Guinea, where we first discovered this enigmatic behaviour, rapid deforestation is rendering the area close to uninhabitable for the chimps that once lived and thrived there. Allowing chimpanzees in the wild to continue spiralling towards extinction will not only be a critical loss to biodiversity, but a tragic loss to our own heritage, too.

You can support chimps with your time, by instantly becoming a citizen scientist and spying on them at www.chimpandsee.org, and with your wallet by donating to the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation. Who knows what we might find next that could forever change our understanding of our closest relatives.

The Conversation

Laura Kehoe, PhD researcher in wildlife conservation and land use at the Humboldt University of Berlin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496