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I missed this when it hit the news last year. Although some of the headlines oversold this in true clickbait fashion (“Scientists may have found evidence that chimps believe in God”), this research is interesting. The work of Dean Hamer is relevant here. Though the “God gene” was overhyped, the general idea (that certain humans are genetically predisposed to more spiritual behaviour) is pretty sound, and this latest evidence would cohere with that. They’re not inferring religion per se, rather they are noting that apparently purposeless, ritualistic behaviour is evident in some chimps. This could then form the rudimentary basis for what eventually becomes religion.

The Independent reports:

Chimpanzees in West Africa have been spotted banging and throwing rocks against trees and throwing them into gaps inside, leading to piles of rocks. Those rocks do not appear to be for any functional purpose — and might be an example of an early version of ritual behaviour.

The discovery might help researchers learn more about the basis of human religion and rituals, and how such activities formed in our own history.

The scientist described seeing the behaviour through cameras that were set up to watch the chimpanzees. They saw them assembling piles of stones — of a similar kind of the ritual cairns that have been found throughout human history.

“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 researchers write in their abstract.

“The ritualized 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.”

“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 researchers write in their abstract.

“The ritualized 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.”

In fact, Kehoe’s blog piece here is worth a read:

Nothing like this had been seen before and it gave me goose bumps. Jane Goodall first discovered wild chimps using tools in the 1960s. Chimps use twigs, leaves, sticks and some groups even use spears in order to get food. Stones have also been used by chimps to crack open nuts and cut open large fruit. Occasionally, chimps throw rocks in displays of strength to establish their position in a community.

But what we discovered during our now-published study wasn’t a random, one-off event, it was a repeated activity with no clear link to gaining food or status – it could be a ritual. We searched the area and found many more sites where trees had similar markings and in many places piles of rocks had accumulated inside hollow tree trunks – reminiscent of the piles of rocks archaeologists have uncovered in human history.

Videos poured in. Other groups working in our project began searching for trees with tell-tale markings. We found the same mysterious behaviour in small pockets of Guinea Bissau, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire but nothing east of this, despite searching across the entire chimp range from the western coasts of Guinea all the way to Tanzania.

Why are chimps throwing stones at trees?

I spent many months in the field, along with many other researchers, trying to figure out what these chimps are up to. So far we have two main theories. 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. This could be especially likely in areas where there are not many trees with large roots that chimps would normally drum on with their powerful hands and feet. If some trees produce an impressive bang, this could accompany or replace feet drumming in a display and trees with particularly good acoustics could become popular spots for revisits.

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. Figuring out where chimps’ territories are in relation to rock throwing sites could give us insights into whether this is the case here.

Even more intriguing than this, maybe we found the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees. Indigenous West African people have stone collections at “sacred” treesand such man-made stone collections are commonly observed across the world and look eerily similar to what we have discovered here.

This New Scientist article is also worth perusing.

The take-away point for me is that if we see religion and ritualistic behaviours, like all behaviours, as being evolved naturalistically and naturally, then we would probably expect to see rudimentary versions thereof in our closest relatives.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...