Mysterious Chimpanzee Behaviour May Be Evidence of 'Sacred' Rituals
Mysterious Chimpanzee Behaviour May Be Evidence of 'Sacred' Rituals
By Laura Kehoe / theconversation.com

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” treesand such man-made stone collections are commonly observed across the world and look eerily similar to what we have discovered here.

Stone throwing - in action and on site. Top line: Adult male tossing, hurling and banging a stone. Bottom line: Stones accumulated in a hollow tree; typical stone throwing site; and stones in between large roots. Kühl et al (2016), 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% 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.


Main image: Mark Linfield/Walt Disney Pictures, CC BY

 is a PhD researcher in wildlife conservation and land use, Humboldt University of Berlin

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
Dakota Access Pipeline Permit Denied
Nika Knight · 14,738 views today · 'For the first time in Native American history, they heard our voices.'
All the News Is Fake!
3 min · 9,838 views today · Jonathan Pie finds nothing new in the idea of fake news.
How Romanticism Ruined Love
5 min · 8,508 views today · The set of ideas we can call Romanticism is responsible for making our relationships extremely difficult. We shouldn’t give up on love; we should just recognize that it’s more...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 5,835 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
After Historic Protests, Army Corps of Engineers Blocks Current Route of the Dakota Access Pipeline
3 min · 3,012 views today · The $4 billion dollar project could still be approved by President-elect Donald Trump who is heavily invested in the pipeline. Help support The Real News by making a donation...
The Numbers That Tell the Story of the Standing Rock Sioux's Victory
Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn · 2,529 views today · The Army Corps announced Sunday that the Dakota Access pipeline will be rerouted. Here are the numbers that show what lies ahead.
Post-Brexit Visions of The Possible: It's Time to Imagine a New European Community
Martin Winiecki · 2,339 views today · We live in the beginning phase of a global revolution which will turn societal conditions upside down. We cannot stop this transformation, but we can influence where it will...
Bikini Was Just the Beginning, Bombs Still Threaten the Islanders
John Pilger · 2,281 views today · I was recently in the Marshall Islands, which lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and south of Hawaii. Whenever I tell people where I have been, they...
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 2,193 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
Lifting the Veil:  Obama and the Failure of Capitalist Democracy (2011)
114 min · 1,967 views today · This film explores the historical role of the Democratic Party as the "graveyard of social movements", the massive influence of corporate finance in elections, the absurd...
This is an Anthem for Our Times
6 min · 1,853 views today · I think the world deserves to see the truth about #NoDAPL I tried my best to portray what I felt at camp, I felt LOVE. Love for all people, all living things, Mother Earth...
United Natures: a United Nations of all Species (2013)
103 min · 1,824 views today · United Natures explores the Rights of Mother Earth, Environmental Philosophy, Wisdom, Spirituality and the potential for a Neo-indigenous future for humanity. Directed and...
10 Practical Tools for Building a Resilient Local Economy
Environmental Change Makers · 1,348 views today · The economy is changing. Dramatically. Coping with these changes means changing the way we do things. The path of the future involves root level, radical changes. Things we...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,341 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Venus Project by Jacque Fresco
4 min · 1,228 views today · For more information visit the official web site: thevenusproject.com Facebook: facebook.com/TheVenusProjectGlobal Music: Salomon Ligthelm - Close Horizonz Hanz Zimmer ...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 1,128 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 897 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Why Are Media Outlets Still Citing Discredited 'Fake News' Blacklist?
Adam Johnson · 804 views today · The Washington Post (11/24/16) last week published a front-page blockbuster that quickly went viral: Russia-promoted “fake news” had infiltrated the newsfeeds of 213 million...
Austrialian Government Promotes Crap with Adani Carmichael Coal Mine
2 min · 718 views today · The Australian Government just released this advert about the proposed Carmichael Coal Mine and it's surprisingly honest and informative. 6 WAYS YOU CAN HELP STOP CCRAP: 1...
The Fight for Clean Water (#NoDAPL)
2 min · 635 views today · Clean water or Corporate profits? What’s more important? #NoDAPL Energy Transfer Partners: (214) 981-0700 U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers: (202) 761-0010; (202)...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Mysterious Chimpanzee Behaviour May Be Evidence of 'Sacred' Rituals