As Good Friday nears and Easter beckons to many as well as Passover to many others, it might come as a surprise to you that recent studies have indicated that a group of Chimpanzees have been studied and a series of illogical and on the face of it unnecessary tasks observed.
PhD researcher Laura Kehoe from a Berlin university came across an unusually scarred tree on the edges of the Savannah in the Republic of Guinea. Her curiosity piqued, Laura set up a remote camera and the footage obtained showed that chimpanzees had been demonstrating highly unusual behaviour.
Some of them threw stones at the tree for no apparent reason, which explained the scars on the tree whilst others foraged for stones before carefully placing them at the foot of the tree and so creating a cairn. Both actions were very deliberate but apparently were of no benefit to their day-to-day existence.
The chimps were fully committed to their stone-throwing and cairn-building, and yet on the face of it, their behaviour appeared to serve no purpose whatsoever.
At first it was mused that the chimps might be throwing the rocks to use the noises to communicate to each other in a morse code type way which in itself would be revolutionary. However that wouldn’t explain why other chimpanzees would silently place rocks inside the hollow of the tree trunk and creating a cairn would have very limited communication uses even for humans, let alone chimps.
Though her professional credentials demanded she think of every other option first, the more Laura thought about the practices the more she arrived at t unavoidable conclusion that the chimpanzees had created their own ritual, perhaps even a religious one.
Laura was adamant and stuck to her guns: ‘Maybe we found the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees,’ she said. And if you think about it, the fact that chimps are animals is no reason to rule out the possibility that the tree has some kind of special meaning for them.
We humans share more than 98 per cent of our genetic material with chimpanzees. The many things we have in common include smartness, communications skills, tool-use, a strong social sense and marked problem-solving abilities.
To suggest that both species can have a shared experience of reverence is not the biggest leap that has ever been made in the history of philosophy and science.
The once many differences between humans and animals have been whittled away in recent decades with creatures as diverse as Dolphins, Elephants, Primates and even Crows showing evidence of supposedly human only levels of being such as a self-awareness, mourning and even the use of tools.
Anthropologists usually suggest that religion first developed among humans to get us through hard times and, above all, as a way of dealing with death.
It involves an understanding of what death is: an appreciation of the fact that death is a permanent state, and that someone who dies will never be seen alive again.
It was once widely accepted that this understanding was one of the unbridgeable chasms that separated human from non-human animals for all time: but that view has had to be modified.
The ethologist Cynthia Moss devoted her life to the study of elephants. Here’s what a group of elephants did after poachers had killed one of their number, an individual Moss had named Tina.
‘They stood around Tina’s carcass, touching it gently with their trunks and feet . . . they tried to dig with their feet and trunks and when they managed to get a little earth up they sprinkled it over the body.
‘Trista, Tia and some of the others went off and broke branches from the surrounding low bushes and brought them back and placed them on the carcass . . . by nightfall they had nearly buried her with branches and earth.
‘Then they stood vigil over her for most of the night and only as dawn was approaching did they reluctantly walk away.’ Make of this what you choose: but the incident certainly seems to show an awareness of death, a consequent grief and an ad-hoc ritual of mourning.
I have no doubt whatsoever that an elephant knows what death is, having witnessed an elephant mother’s distress at seeing her calf taken by a crocodile. And if you understand death and the loss it brings, you have to find a way of living with it.
San Ignacio lagoon in Baja California, Mexico, used to be a killing-ground. It is a great meeting and mating and birthing place for grey whales at the end of their annual migration, so the small whaling boats in past centuries used to enter the calm waters and turn them red.
But they didn’t have it all their own way. The whalers called the grey whales ‘devil-fish’ because they would deliberately and systematically attack and overturn the boats.
I was there a few years ago, in a small boat. The whales approached with great enthusiasm, but not to overturn our boat. Instead they raised their heads out of the water for a pat.
I saw mother whales nudging their calves forward, so they could have the strange — and perhaps educational — experience of being tickled and kissed by humans. In the first years of commercial whale-watching the boats were approached by tickle-seeking whales that bore scars from harpoons. That is seriously odd.
It would be too much to claim this as a ritual of forgiveness from the whales for our past sins. But to us humans, always prone to sentimentality, that’s how it felt.
In the Gombe forest in Tanzania, a strange behaviour has been observed in baboons, primates far more distant from humans than chimpanzees. On occasions they have been observed just sitting all together, contemplating the water of the stream.
Baboon troops are noisy, all-action things: but here was a silence and a stillness observed for 30 minutes, even by the youngest and noisiest.
It’s been suggested that this has elements of a shared meditation: something not a million miles from a religious service.
A similar thing has been observed in chimpanzees. Lionel Tiger, anthropologist and professor of Rutgers University in New Jersey, has discussed a period of shared peace enjoyed after breakfast in a chimpanzee group, in a place that felt safe, surrounded by tall trees — ‘cathedral-like’ as Tiger said. (Are our pillared cathedrals an ancient, unconscious memory of such places?)
At these times there is a marked lessening of the day-to-day tensions of communal life. A lot of mutual grooming goes on. The dominant males leave off bothering the smaller ones. It’s a special time of shared comfort: ‘What you could call a religious-type service,’ Tiger suggested.
No one has spent more time with our nearest genetic relative than Jane Goodall, a British primatologist who has spent her life with chimpanzees. She has been party to some incredible behaviour across the decades she has spent in Gombe Stream national park in Tanzania. Here she describes a male chimpanzee approaching a waterfall.
‘As he gets closer, and the roar of the falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls.
‘Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up the slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This waterfall dance may last ten or 15 minutes.’
Chimpanzees have been seen to dance in greeting to heavy rain, during violent wind-storms and in response to wildfire.
Where most animals flee, chimpanzees will sometimes linger to marvel at the flames. Goodall asked: ‘Is it not possible that these performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe?’
Such behaviour may well have been a precursor to the earliest humans learning to harness fire.
Whether religious or not, it shouldn’t be too much of a jump from primates grieving or using simple tools to having a belief in some kind of God. Let’s hope that they have more luck with it than we do and don’t end up killing each other when the stone throwing apes conclude that the cairn builders aren’t following the true faith.