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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.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon