Another study has revealed yet another interesting behavior pattern. Laura Kehoe working in the Republic of Guinea discovered some tree sites with strange markings. It was their native guide Mamadou Alioh Bah, who alerted the research team to the significance of these markings. Soon, Kehoe set up a camera ᴛʀᴀᴘ and waited. What she witnessed was something ‘exhilarating’.
A male chimpanzee came to that specific tree, paused for a second, glanced around and then threw a stone at the tree. It was ‘a repeated activity with no clear link to gaining food or status’ and hence Kehoe cautiously speculates that it could be a ritual. If it was not a male display (there were no female observers around), then Kehoe considers this ‘could be more symbolic’ and makes a bold suggestion: ‘…may be we found the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees’.
She points out that manmade stone collections have been found across the cultures venerating such sacred trees.
Are Chimps Evolving Their Own ‘Religion’?
There is a fundamental question: is religion unique to human species? Suppose religion is not unique to humans. Then the Marxist view of religion being a tool invented to control fellow species members goes out of the window.
Jane Goodall changed the notion that tool-making was unique to humanity. Interestingly, she is also the woman who discovered the tool-making abilities of chimpanzees who also asked this question in an emphatic way. She discovered, at Gombe National Park, chimps using tools to fish out termites.
She observed chimps making certain displays during rainfall. She also witnessed a similar display nearby waterfalls by chimps. In her own words:
“Deep in the forest are some spectacular waterfalls. Sometimes, as a chimpanzee – most often an adult male – approaches one of these falls, his hair bristles slightly, a sign of heightened arousal. As he gets closer, and the roar of 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 the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. … This ‘waterfall dance’ may last for ten or fifteen minutes.”
Barbara J King, biological anthropologist and author, is also ‘agnostic’ about Jane Goodall’s suggestion that wild chimpanzees express spiritual awe or proto-spiritual awe. Barbara King’s skepticism over Goodall’s observation is interesting because she accepts that the ‘omnipresence of animals in our lives…has maintained a powerful spiritual, transcendent quality for Homo sapiens during the tens of thousands of years’.
She also states that being with animals heighten a renewed appreciation of the beauty of evolutionary continuity or a deepened sense of God’s hand in the world at work or both. In both Fisher’s theological argument and Barbara King’s view religion is something special for humans. Even when King concedes that relations with animals can evoke a spiritual feeling in humans, she is skeptical about spiritual inner states of chimps.
We are not alone in our ability to feel joy or sorrow, mourn the loss of a loved one, act in altruistic ways, solve complex problems or hold unique personalities. But are we the only species with a sense of the sacred? The spiritual? Goodall has witnessed chimps performing a specific kind of swaying dance around large waterfalls, in thunderstorms, and during heavy rains. This dance suggests a sense of ceremony and appreciation of the natural world, which as Goodall speculates, might be “related to awe and wonder…”
Realising that we are not so different from the rest of the animal kingdom could have profound implications on how we treat our closest living relatives. Is it acceptable to continue to carry out ɪɴᴠᴀsɪᴠᴇ ᴍᴇᴅɪᴄᴀʟ ᴛʀɪᴀʟs? Or lock up our primate cousins in zoos for our entertainment? A ᴅᴇᴠᴀsᴛᴀᴛɪɴɢ combination of increasing human numbers, habitat ᴅᴇsᴛʀᴜᴄᴛɪᴏɴ, ᴘᴏᴀᴄʜɪɴɢ ᴀɴᴅ ɪɴғᴇᴄᴛɪᴏᴜs ᴅɪsᴇᴀsᴇ sᴇᴠᴇʀᴇʟʏ ᴇɴᴅᴀɴɢᴇʀs chimpanzees. Leading scientists ᴡᴀʀɴ us that, if nothing changes, chimps and other great apes will have only 30 years left in the wild. In the unprotected forests of Guinea, where we first discovered this enigmatic behaviour, rapid ᴅᴇꜰᴏʀᴇsᴛᴀᴛɪᴏɴ is rendering the area close to uninhabitable for the chimps that once lived and thrived there. Allowing chimpanzees in the wild to continue spiralling towards ᴇxᴛɪɴᴄᴛion will not only be a ᴄʀɪᴛɪᴄᴀʟ loss to biodiversity, but a ᴛʀᴀɢɪᴄ loss to our own heritage, too.