Fongoli chimpanzees, Pruetz profile

National Geographic sent writer Mary Roach to see the Fongoli chimpanzees, at the field site of primatologist Jill Pruetz. The result is a nice story about the difficulties of establishing and running a field site, and the joys of watching chimpanzees do things no one has ever seen before.

Now here comes Farafa, her baby Fanta on her back and a bushbuck haunch in her jaws. It's a complicated, messy piece of anatomy, with sinew and hide hanging off one end. Tia sees her and stands up to move away. My last glimpse of Tia is with her now bare bone brandished above her head, standing erect, as though reenacting the "dawn of man" scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Fongoli chimps have a flair for the dramatic.

It's a funny thing about the range of a set of observations: New observations can only increase it, never decrease it. People tend to forget that, as long as we are considering the range of behaviors, studying chimpanzees can do nothing but make them overlap with humans more and more.

The Fongoli chimpanzees are in Senegal, at the very western limit of the chimpanzees' range. Their savanna-woodland territory may be the reason for many of their unique behavior patterns, really the impetus for the article. Roach describes a conservation scenario somewhat different than that in much of the current chimpanzee habitat in other parts of Africa:

[T]he animals are accorded a remarkable amount of respect by locals. Kerri Clavette, Pruetz's intern, interviewed villagers about their beliefs regarding chimpanzees and whether they hunted them. Among the region's main tribes -- the Malinke, Bedik, Bassari, and Jahanka -- chimps, compared with monkeys, have an elevated, almost human status. "Chimpanzees came from man, as they have similar hearts," a villager told Clavette. Behaviors normally associated with a baser nature -- such as walking on all fours -- were given a respectful spin: "Chimpanzees walk on their knuckles to keep their hands clean to eat with." Chimpanzee origin myths feature humans running off into the woods for some reason -- war, fear of circumcision, fear of being punished for fishing on Saturday -- and staying there so long that they turn into chimpanzees.

The article includes several anecdotes about the culture of male chimpanzee researchers (that is to say, male researchers of chimpanzees!) and their reluctance to accept certain female behaviors (such as bushbaby skewering) as much like the male counterparts (such as colobus hunting). I think this is to some extent overblown. The literature has made plain for some time that females are the major transmitters of cultural traits in chimpanzees, and so it would be quite silly to deny the importance of females in bearing such traits in the first place. The dispute over the meaning of hunting is mostly semantic -- the real disagreement being whether the motivation for the behavior is food sharing or purely individual foraging.

And as for the dispute over the meaning of the word, "spear," this really seems to indicate the insularity of certain chimpanzee researchers. Sharpened thrusting weapons were the only such implements available for all but the last 80,000 years or so of human evolution. If we don't call such things, "spears," then a lot of archaeologists are going to be confused!

Anyway, it's a great article.