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Chimps Hold “Funeral”?

chimps funeral

A chimp died of a lung infection. Other chimps hovered around the body. One, a female, cleaned the deceased’s teeth with a bit of grass, then sampled the grass herself.

Anthropomorphizing interpretation, please? And make sure it brutally conflates animal behavior with the most refined, sensitive aspects of human culture, if you don’t mind.

Certainly. Well, you see they were holding a funeral, complete with mortuary rites. From the article in The Telegraph, “Chimp mother filmed cleaning dead body of son in first hint of primate funeral rites“:

Female chimp Noel, who lives at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphange Trust in Zambia, was seen using a stem of grass to remove debris from the teeth of a young male named Thomas, who she had looked after since the death of his own mother four years earlier.

She was one of a number of chimps who surrounded the body for around 20 minutes, gently touching and sniffing Thomas despite offers of food to tempt them away.

Not only funeral rituals — they also practice adoption:

But it was Noel who appeared to be the most upset, staying on her own to clean the teeth of her adopted son, even when the others had left.

In the Abstract of the original article in Scientific Reports, they note that the observation of this behavior

highlights how crucial information for reconstructing the evolutionary origins of human mortuary practices may be missed by refraining from developing adequate observation techniques to capture non-human animals’ death responses.

More, from the Discussion section:

Anecdotal evidence needs to be treated cautiously15.

Do you think so? The “evidence” provided by a single anecdote, they mean.

However, given the availability of high-quality video footage, we present a valid case of unique non-human animal behaviour which could shed light on the evolution of behaviours that are believed to be typically human.

As expected, this is about casting doubt on human uniqueness.

Death responses represent core features of human civilization, with great diversity in mortuary rites found across cultures16. In general, for animals critically depending on group living17, like humans and chimpanzees, responding to death may be a means to reorganize the social unit, especially when so-called “brokers” die: individuals who play an important role in maintaining group cohesion by connecting sub-groups18,19.

But all the “human mortuary practices” and “mortuary rites” we are familiar with stem from beliefs about human life, its dignity, and what comes after it. It’s hard to see how in the absence of language, chimps could develop or pass on beliefs of their own about life or death. If what these chimps did was simply to “reorganize the social unit” following the death of a “broker,” then calling it a “rite” would seem to be a case of anthropomorphism.

The lead author of the report is Edwin van Leeuwen at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Speaking with The Telegraph, a colleague interjects a note of sobriety.

Klaus Zuberbuehler, also of St Andrews, said scientists should be cautious in interpreting the behaviour.

“Perhaps the chimpanzees are just challenged by the fact that a group member has suddenly become completely motionless,” he said.

Thibaud Gruber, of the University of Geneva also told New Scientist that the chimps may have a limited understanding of death.

More than a possibility, the idea that chimps “have a limited understanding of death” would seem to be a certainty. Given that, the expectation that they would be “challenged” by a colleague’s “suddenly becom[ing] completely motionless” appears reasonable.

Wikipedia defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities,” stating that it “is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.” There is no parallel term for the attribution, by chimps, of chimp traits, etc. to non-chimps. That is because the “innate tendency” to anthropomorphize is unique to “human psychology.”

As I’ve observed before, attempts to deny the exceptional qualities of human beings, to put us on a plane of equality with animals like chimps, dogs, or cats, share this tendency to self-destruct.

We entertain beliefs that attribute human intentions to chimps. Chimps do not return the favor. That is because contrary to notions widely held in the media and academia, humans are unique in nature. The error of imagining that a chimp holds a “funeral” for her “adopted son” is more evidence of that, if any were needed.

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, United States [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.