Neuron Culture

The good folks at Neuroanthropology drew my attention to a pair of videos showing how chimpanzees work together to corral, kill, and then eat colubus monkeys. Amazing stuff.

The embedded video below shows a hunt from the rather chaotic point of view of cameramen chasing the chase at jungle-floor level. Impressive enough in itself:

Even more riveting, however, is the second video, which can’t be embedded but which can be seen on YouTube. It mixes from-the-ground footage with aerial shots taken with infrared cameras to show how a team of five chimps — a driver, three blockers, and an ambusher — work to funnel the colobus monkeys into the arms of the ambusher. The driver climbs into the treetops and sets the colubus into motion. The blockers on the ground, outracing the tree-swinging colubus, move in front of them and then climb to create a sort of gate through which they’ll corral the prey. The ambusher climbs to a spot beyond this gate. The trap works: One of the colobus flees right into the ambusher’s tree, and soon becomes a meal.

This is more than a little unsettling to watch: It looks remarkably like a scene from Patriot Games, the Harrison Ford movie, in which CIA agents in Washington, D.C., watch a live satellite infrared feed of U.S. commandos executing a lethal nighttime raid on a purported terrorist came — a scene in which we watch the D.C.CIA team becoming uncomfortable at the silent savagery they’re witnessing — and ordered — from a world away.

And so, watching this, we feel a bit complicit as well — at once impressed and horrified. Well we might. As the narrator in the embedded video notes, these hunts, though disturbing, may be the evolutionary forerunner of the kind of coordinated teamwork that has allowed humankind to accomplish so much — not just higher scales of coordinated lethality, but agriculture, government, cave art, orchestra music, you name it.

There’s a history-of-science aspect to this too: I find it interesting to see the emphasis on the social/evolutionary aspect of this hunting. This reflects not just changes in the scientific view of such behavior but changes in the larger zeitgeist since Jane Goodall began reporting more heart-warming chimp behavior in the early 1960s. When chimpanzee hunting was first discovered in the 1970s — a far less idealistic time than the early 1960s, a time when the U.S. in particular was in turmoil over its involvement in Vietnam — the most prevalent public reaction was horror, and the most prominent debate even in the scientific community was whether chimp hunting meant that humans, being close cousins to chimps, were not inherently gentle beasts but savages inclined to organized violence.

Since then, though, ethology and primatology has increasingly focused on how primates show sophisticated social behavior — the social brain theory and so on — which in turn has steered the interpretation of hunting away from issues of savagery and toward this stress on social cooperation. Meanwhile the larger American culture, seems to me, has moved from a highly moralistic view of military action — one in which the soldiers were blamed for the war in Vietnam, for instance — to one that is at least implicitly more cognizant of our misadventure in Iraq as a expression of social dynamics we’re all part of. We aren’t as eager to see people as either savage or pacific; we’re more ready to see them as part of a social organism.

Does the culture drive the science or the science the culture? I’ve gotta think the answer is Both.

Hat tip to the excellent Neuroanthropology, which features some good references to both scientific and pop literature on chimp hunting and its implications.


  1. #1 Daniel Lende
    October 22, 2008

    David, thanks so much for the links and the mention. I put up the link to this post in a comment on the cooperative hunting post.

    You did what I failed to do, which is put these videos into the context of ourselves, and I hope readers come over to check what you wrote. I know I will be visiting more!

  2. #2 mark
    November 1, 2008

    Nova just presented an ape-thought show a few nights ago (rebroadcast, I think). They showed colubus hunting, and then they showed a step up in weapons technology–chimps using spears to skewer little bush babies sleeping in hollow trunks.

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