No, it’s not a scene from Planet of the Apes, and it’s not the nightmare you’ll have after spending too much time in your zoo’s primate house. It’s actually the results of research described in a paper recently published in Current Biology. The paper by Jill Pruetz and Paco Bertolani describes the behavior of a troop of savannah chimps in the Fongoli area of southeast Senegal, in western Africa.
Chimpanzees have previously been seen to use simple tools when foraging for food — using twigs to “fish” for termites and ants, and rocks as hammers to crack open nuts. In this latest case, though, the chimps’ tool-making and tool-using skills are dramatically more sophisticated. The Fongoli chimps make wooden spears in a four- or five-step process, then use the spears to hunt down bushbabies (image courtesy of the Duke University Lemur Center). At the very least, the spear production indicates that chimps have a much greater ability to conceptualize than they’d been given credit for. Since the spear use was part of multiple, organized hunts (and by multiple individuals within the troop as well), it also says a lot about the chimps’ capacity for “culture.”
It’s been known for years that quite a number of species use simple tools for various tasks. And some years back, Jane Goodall discovered that male chimps hunt monkeys, particularly red colobus monkeys. Based on this paper, it seems that not only are the Fongoli chimps hunting with spears, but that this is a predominantly female-driven activity. Chimps are often felt to provide a window on early human behavior, so you can imagine that the paper is generating quite a bit of discussion.
It’s getting harder and harder to come up with a behavior that’s “uniquely human.” I’m planning a podcast episode on the human / chimp relationship, but in the meantime if you’d like to learn more about the significance of this news, there’s plenty of discussion of it on the web. Here are some links to start with:
The EurekAlert press release on the paper
Current Biology has movies of the chimps in action
Carl Zimmer over at The Loom tackles the gender roles perspective of this study
Mind Hacks mentions one psychological aspect of the news
The Evolution List has a particularly good discussion of the repercussions of this study