Mysterious Chimpanzee Behavior May Be Evidence of “Sacred” Rituals

Mar 1, 2016

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By Laura Kehoe

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.The Conversation

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.


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.

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39 comments on “Mysterious Chimpanzee Behavior May Be Evidence of “Sacred” Rituals

  • 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.


    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.

    Possible, but sound like anthropomorphic projection

    Even more intriguing than this, maybe we found the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees.


    So what does the media choose as a head line…

    Mysterious Chimpanzee Behavior May Be Evidence of “Sacred” Rituals

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  • 3
    maria melo says:

    “You can support chimps with your time, by instantly becoming a citizen scientist and spying on them at, 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.”

    It seems silly.
    To support education of local people is the best way to help conservation of wild chipamzee population, poverty is in fact the worst enemy. I can help by adopteing a chimp rescued from circus for instance, but I must do difficult choices, I have not too much to donate, so, hope I could choose my “best causes”.,

    or even education, but not with a camera at distance (well, who knows?)

    Here´s what Juanito discovered, displayng himself on the screen of a surveilance camera, sooooooooooo cute, who would not like to help such a wonderful animal? I am in love with Juanito.

    (I cannot see the options of quoting, entering links etc. but I think it´s not my browser´s fault this time)

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  • A few possible practical reasons skipped over then straight onto talking about it being sacred. After seeing a program on cats time sharing territory in a small village, and how dangerous it is for solitary animals to end up in the same place at the same time, my mind went to sound and scent being used to achieve the space needed for a peaceful existence.

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  • Olgun

    I think I saw that show about the cats. Wasn’t another conclusion that they were shocked at how far those cats ranged in their daily walk-abouts? The time sharing strategy was cool though.

    I’m watching the primary election results coming in on TV while writing this. My state is voting today but results not in yet.

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  • Archaeologists do the same thing.. They dig up some fragment of a human artefact and straightaway it’s “obviously” part of some sacred ritual.

    A chimp throwing a stone at a tree could just be doing it because it’s kinda fun and makes a loud bang. If we are to anthropomorphise it as some kind of human proto-behaviour, it could just be play, like a human skimming stones on a lake surface.

    Where they see a “shrine”, I see a possible “clubhouse”, where the “in crowd” hang out to throw stones together.

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  • @ Laurie

    There were a couple that wandered much further than others, one in particular if I remember right. There was another household that had four or five cats (or was it a farm?) that moved around together but always at a set distance apart.

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  • Where they see a “shrine”, I see a possible “clubhouse”, where the “in crowd” hang out to throw stones together.

    What’s the difference? ?

    Actually, I was thinking it could be intended to scare off potential threats (like snakes) that might be “hiding” in or around the trees. If so, this could be considered a form of superstition or “magical thinking”.

    Clearly, more study is required to fully understand what is going on.

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  • This behavior may be a hunting technique. I would think if only chimps have been seen doing it, that would suggest a meat eater or insect hunter.
    They may have learned to throw a rock into a tree hole to scare out any prey.

    Or, he just got in a fight with his lady and he is taking it out on the tree……

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  • David

    He has a pathetic throwing style

    He didn’t grow up playing baseball, that much is obvious. The chimp on the other hand would make a superior outfielder if it could be trained to throw with accuracy. The upper body strength on those guys could send a baseball rocketing from one end of the field to the other and break the catcher’s hand on impact!

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  • Sacred? Come now. That is not how you treat sacred trees. This sounds more like the way we boys threw rocks at poles or trees just to see who was most accurate.

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  • Chimps using materials to make noise, scare predators, or assist in collecting food, is nothing unusual!

    Did you know?

    Chimpanzees use large sticks and branches as clubs or throw them at enemies like leopards and humans.

    Chimps sometimes chew leaves to make them absorbent and then use them as a sponge, dipping them in water and sucking out the moisture. They also use grass stems or twigs as tools, poking them into termite or ant nests and eating the insects that cling to them. They are able to wedge nuts between the roots of a tree and break the shells open with a stone.

    Chimps are both arboreal and terrestrial, spending much of their daytime hours on the ground. They are quadrupedal, walking quickly on all fours with the fingers half-flexed to support the weight of the forequarters on the knuckles. They occasionally walk erect for short distances.

    Chimps are agile climbers, building nests high up in trees to rest in during midday and sleep in at night. They construct new nests in minutes by bending branches, intertwining them to form a platform and lining the edges with twigs. In some areas chimps make nests on the ground.

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  • Sacred ritual my arse! Chimps are well known for drumming on buttress roots and making other noises to notify their presence and keep the troop together. Let me guess, every tree they threw rocks at didn’t have buttress roots they could drum on with their feet and hands so they found another way to make noise.

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  • 18
    bonnie says:


    Only if a monolith appears.

    stones in hollows

    Why do homo sapiens have the urge to toss coins into a well or fountain, because we can.

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  • When we were boys we used to play in the sand pits on Horsell Common near Woking, where H G Wells’s Martians landed in The War of The Worlds; he was a cub reporter on the Woking News and Mail at the time he wrote it.

    Anyway, we would do chicken runs towards the “cliff” edge on our track bikes; oh how we’d laugh when one of us went over the edge!

    Was it a religious ritual? Nah, we were just having a laugh!

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  • @maria-melo

    Here´s Juanito displayng on the screen of a surveilance camera

    This explains a lot. When you put a camera in front of a politician, they go ape shit. Maybe this is an evolutionary throw back. It reminded me of the American presidential race.

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  • 25
    maria melo says:

    “Well, maria melo, I’d like to know what Jerry Coyne himself makes of this article; perhaps he’ll post something here.”

    Stafford Gordon

    I have been skipping what Jerry Coyne has written about the article, but I´ll look carefully.
    A corolary for the “sacred” implies developed language and a great symbolic meaning, and it would be a great assumption. Jerry Coyne has looked for more references than the article itsel, I´ll look for more references too.

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  • maria melo # 25.

    It would indeed be a tad difficult for chimpanzees to formulate parables and build symbolic edifaces.

    I very much doubt that Professor Coyne would endorse any idea that chimps had religious notions; I expect it all comes down to that perennial driving force, sex.

    Some things are truly timeless.

    But of course sex is a subject that those of a religious disposition apparently find it difficult to broach; although, despite some of their weird notions about it, it does seem to manifest itself quite frequently among their ranks, and in a decidedly nasty form.

    As Feynman said: “…nature cannot be fooled.”. He also said: “The easiest person to fool is yourself.”.

    Now I’m waffling!

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  • 27
    maria melo says:

    Well, perhaps “sacred” is related to superstion and alterity (this last concept of alterity considering that for something to be “sacred” there is the opposite, something that is blasfemous and mundane as opposed to “sacred” kind the way Mircea Eliade puts it, and the “mundane” is avoided and there is punishment for it, and consequences for not avoiding it) Well, superstition is not exclusively humane afterall, nor symbolic is ? , although I think language is related to the higher degree of superstition it achieved in humans (as a by-product is supposed to leave room for other “misuse” )
    Religion seems too much related to superstition to me rather than reference for nature as Jane Goodall considers it.
    The throwing of rocks looks more some kind of violent male game to me.
    What do I know?
    I have been listening to interviews of Guinea conservationist scientists, geneticist and an anthropologist (colleague of mine that became my professor) that made/make investigation there, beginning with the field work of the anthropologist to better aknowledge what local native populations think of the forest and animals that inabhit it, quite interestingly, they consider the chimpanzee one of the most ugly animals and less edible, the gazelle the most beautiful and more edible; undoubtedly these animals are seemingly similar to humans , close to us as far as they may consider them as humans that got cursed or as imperfect humans. The part of population that received influence from Islam are not allowed to eat chimpanzee meat as it is almost a “sacred” animal, but muslims living there can therefore not eat them but nevertheless harm them at the same.

    There are governamental funded conservation parks there to protect the forest and conserve the fauna there and I heard local population consider it positive (I am not convinced here).

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  • 29
    maria melo says:

    I meant using the the word “lateral” = something like side-effect (I think it still is a wrong choise of words typical from me).

    As a by-product of something-else, religion (90% superstition) takes advantage of ….. including linguistic skills (the methaphor for instances and the metaphor is quite popular).

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  • 30
    maria melo says:

    “Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman, that I belong not to men
    and governments, that I have nothing to do with creeds and principles,
    I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity- I belong
    to the Earh!”

    -Henry Miller

    A meaningful quote I took from a PhD thesis of Rui Sá.

    Here´s another reference about what I have said about Guinea people (Nalu and Balanta) and their perceptions about the animals that inhabit the forest and the forest itself, it is asked “will non-human animals be the last “other” in Anthropology/Sociology. (It seems the answer is negative).

    Perceptions of Nalu and Balanta on Environment in Rural Areas in Guinea-Bissau – Do non- humans be the last “other” in sociology?

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  • 34
    maria melo says:

    “Religion seems too much related to superstition to me rather than reference for nature as Jane Goodall considers it.”

    I mean reverence, not reference.

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  • Fascinating. Utterly fascinating.
    I myself was baffled.
    One comment:
    We humans, and perhaps these chimps as well, do engage in rituals – all the time.
    The idea of a “Sacred ritual” I too reject.
    I suspect that it is a non-sacred ritual of sorts, and may serve some practical and/or psychological
    purpose(s). — The two are by no means mutually exclusive.
    Many patients with OCD, for example, engage in rituals all the time, and there is nothing
    sacred about this; the performance of these rituals serves a function, and is attributable to other
    (non-spiritual) factors.
    (It is probably the case that that so-called sacred rituals we all observe are essentially practical
    (psychologically motivated) as well.

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  • I just looked at the footage again. It appears almost as if the chimp was trying to
    somehow dominate the tree, to gain mastery of it. If that is the case then this act
    would be attributable – at least in part – to anxiety, to fear. But I am merely
    speculating, and have no idea what the tree represents – if anything. Some aspect
    of its surroundings?

    Obsessive-compulsive behavior is always anxiety based, and often involves
    gaining mastery of some kind. (In actuality, the repetitive behavior only reinforces
    the anxiety – ad infinitum.)

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  • Dan! Hurrah! I thought we had lost you for good….

    I hope all is well…

    I think the tree represents another chimp (the hated one) or maybe a monkey or some other prey.

    This is a rehearsal as far as I can see….studied nonchalance, looking away, then a build up of anger and an overflow into violence and a quick scarper. Chimps normally use sticks and logs as cudgels to attack each other and prey. They can’t throw for toffee. 2m is about the furthest they can master even when trained to it.

    I think the loudness of the noise might be a measure of their success in improving.

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  • @ Phil

    All is indeed well. Thank you.

    “I think the tree represents another chimp (the hated one) or maybe a monkey or some other prey […]”

    “This is a rehearsal.”

    Very good surmise. More likely than some kind of OCD thing. Perhaps a touch of the latter.

    But who can say for sure?

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