London – VIJAY SHAH via ANDREW GRIFFIN and The Independent
Scientists are studying footage shot by the Chimbo Foundation and PanAf of strange behaviour by a group of African chimpanzees, which they may think indicate the chimps are performing rituals, which may indicate belief in a religion, according to Britain’s The Independent newspaper, and first reported last year (2016).
The footage shows chimps in a forest clearing in an unnamed part of West Africa, carrying stones and arranging them in little ‘cairns’. Mainly though, the chimps, including a mother carrying her baby, are seen hurling rocks against the bases of certain wide-bottomed trees, while screeching loudly. Other apes have been seen throwing smaller rocks into holes in the trees, creating deposits of material. It is surmised that this unusual behaviour, which has only so far been among this West African band of chimps, could be the beginnings of ritual behaviour. The participation of the mother and younger apes means the stone-throwing is highly unlikely to be mating behaviour, and the throwing does not also point to territorial marking.
Scientists studying the apes say their strange activities can give an insight into early human rituals and religious beliefs. Ancient humans constructed cairns and other rock formations as part of nature worship, one of the most famous and advanced examples being the UK’s Stonehenge monument. Chimps and other great apes have already shown the kind of intelligence associated with humans, for example in using sticks as tools to extract grubs and ants. Yet the stone-throwing in West Africa does not fulfill a functional purpose, such as finding food.
The researchers, whose institution was not mentioned in the Independent report, but described in the video above as being from Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Biology, wrote in their report abstracts on the chimp rituals: “This represents the first record of repeated observations of individual chimpanzees exhibiting stone tool use for a purpose other than extractive foraging at what appear to be targeted trees,”
“The ritualized (sic) behavioural display and collection of artefacts at particular locations observed in chimpanzee accumulative stone throwing may have implications for the inferences that can be drawn from archaeological stone assemblages and the origins of ritual sites”
Interestingly, the scientists also found in their research that people in West Africa who follow traditional religions also enact similar rituals involving the construction of cairns at sacred trees.
In a piece written around the findings, researcher Laura Kehoe described the experience of watching the chimp look around and then fling a rock at the tree trunk.
“Nothing like this had been seen before and it gave me goose bumps,” she wrote.
“Marking pathways and territories with signposts such as piles of rocks is an important step in human history,” wrote Kehoe. “Figuring out where chimps’ territories are in relation to rock throwing sites could give us insights into whether this is the case here.”
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“Mysterious chimpanzee behaviour could be ‘sacred rituals’ and show that chimps believe in god” – Andrew Griffin, The Independent (4 March 2016) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/mysterious-chimpanzee-behaviour-could-be-sacred-rituals-and-show-that-chimps-believe-in-god-a6911301.html
“This Could Be First-Ever Observed Ritual Practice Among Chimpanzees” – Hjalmar Kuehl and team/Scientific Reports/MPI-EVA/PanAf/Chimbo Foundation/GeoBeats News, YouTube (1 March 2016) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEQOThqq2pk