Scientists stunned by fire-dancing chimps
Scientists stunned by fire-dancing chimpsBy Steve Connor10:38 AM Saturday Jan 16, 2010
File photo / Sarah Ivey
Chimpanzees have been seen performing a "fire dance" in front of grassland wildfires as part of a suite of unusual behaviours that could indicate an ability of man's closest living relative to understand and even control fire.
Instead of fleeing the wildfires in panic, the chimps appeared to monitor them carefully, showing no signs of the fear other animals normally exhibit. Their leader - the alpha male - even performed a ritualistic display while facing the flames.
The observations could shed light on when our human ancestors first controlled fire, a key stage in human evolution. Scientists said if chimps are able to understand the nature of fire then the same could have been true for the small-brained, ape-like ancestors of humans millions of years ago.
Jill Pruetz, an anthropologist at Iowa State University in Ames, said she saw the fire-dancing behaviour a couple of times in chimps living in a savannah region at Fongoli in Senegal. "I was really surprised at how good the chimps were at predicting the behaviour of fire," Dr Pruetz said. "These were the fires that occur at the end of the dry season and they can burn very hot and can move very swiftly.
"The chimps were much better than I was in predicting how the fire would move.
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In one case, the fire was around us on three sides yet they were very calm and they minimised the distance and the amount of time they had to move."
The "fire-dance" of the alpha male was similar to the rain-dancing behaviour observed by the primatologist, Jane Goodall, when the dominant chimp would begin to sway in slow motion at the signs of an approaching storm, Dr Pruetz said. "Chimps everywhere have what is called a rain dance and it's just a big male display to show dominance," she said. "Males display all the time for different reasons, but when there's a big thunderstorm approaching they do this exaggerated display, it's almost like slow motion.
"When I was with this one party of chimps at Fongoli, the dominant male did the same sort of thing, but it was towards the fire, so I called it the fire dance. It wasn't directed at other members of the group but at the fire itself. As the fire approached them, and the sound of cracking and popping was really deafening, the male started this exaggerated display."
At one point, the leader of the group appeared to emit a barking noise unlike any other warning sound that the chimps use. Dr Pruetz said: "The chimps became more timid as the fire came closer, and the alpha male went out of sight and I heard him give this variation of a warning bark. I had never heard this particular vocalisation before."
And the group stayed calm even when smoke and flames approached. Dr Pruetz said: "It's important to conceptualise fire to overcome the fear of it. Some people think that for humans there is an innate fear of fire and to overcome it is the first step in ultimately controlling it and being able to make fire.
"I think that chimps are perfectly capable of controlling fire. We watch their behaviour in the face of fire and we think they can conceptualise fire, and we see that captive apes can control fire. But they we have to ask why would they do it [in the wild], what is the impetus?"
The study, to be published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, lends support to the idea that the control of fire started relatively early in human evolution. Although there is archaeological evidence from burnt remnants that human ancestors controlled fire more than a million years ago, the earliest hearths, indisputable evidence for the control of fire, date to less than one million years old.
Dr Pruetz said: "If we have this animal that is small-brained but cognitively sophisticated, maybe we should rethink those data from Australopithecines [early human ancestors] in how they may have reacted to fire and reconsider the data that indicate there was some kind of control of fire."
- INDEPENDENTBy Steve Connor