Do Chimps Practice Religion?

| by Diana Kruzman

New evidence uncovered by biologists working in the Republic of Guinea suggests chimpanzees -- human beings’ closest relatives -- may practice some type of religious behavior.

Laura Kehoe, a researcher at the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, was one of several scientists who found that chimpanzees picked out certain trees in the rainforest and placed large rocks at their base, what she called “creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees,” according to New Scientist. The animals also bashed the trees with stones, which Kehoe theorizes might either serve as a way to communicate or indicate a more symbolic behavior.

Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University agreed with the first explanation, pointing out evidence that male chimps bang on root buttresses to create noises louder than their natural calls. The rocks, Pruetz said, may be used if no large roots can be found. Pruetz acknowledged that storing stones in the hollows of trees could serve a symbolic purpose.

“It does seem to be a tradition found in some groups,” Pruetz told New Scientist. “If that fits the definition of proto-ritualistic, I have no problem with it.”

Primate cognitive psychologist Laurie Santos of Yale University called the study a “cool observation,” but said that she worries scientists don’t yet know how to interpret it accurately.

“In my monkey behavior experience, low noises often serve a communicative function -- males trying to act dominant, etc. -- so my instinct is that this behavior might work a lot like that,” Santos told New Scientist. “We’d need more observation -- and perhaps actual experiments -- to know if chimpanzees are using the [behavior] as anything like a ritual.”

As researchers continue to observe the chimpanzees, they hope to gain insight into the origin of these religious rituals, as well as discover whether there is a direct link between chimpanzee belief systems and the evolution of human religion.

“The ritualized [behavioral] display and collection of [artifacts] at particular locations observed in chimpanzee accumulative stone throwing may have implications for the inferences that can be drawn from archeological stone assemblages and the origins of ritual sites,” the researchers write in their abstract, according to The Independent.

Are the chimpanzees' actions evidence of a proto-religion?
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