[monkeywire] Chimp's dance suggests a mental grasp of fire
josh.greenman at gmail.com
Wed Jan 6 10:19:07 EST 2010
Chimp's dance suggests a mental grasp of fire
The use and control of fire are behavioral characteristics that
distinguish humans from other animals. Now, a new study by Iowa State
University anthropologist Jill Pruetz reports that savanna chimpanzees
in Senegal have a near human understanding of wildfires and change
their behavior in anticipation of the fire's movement.
An ISU associate professor of anthropology, Pruetz and Thomas LaDuke,
an associate professor of biological sciences at East Stroudsburg
(Pa.) University, co-authored the paper, which will be posted online
Friday by the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. It will be
published in a 2010 edition of the journal.
Data on the chimps' behavior with seasonal fires was collected by
Pruetz during two specific encounters in March and April 2006. She
reports that wildfires are set yearly by humans for land clearing and
hunting, and most areas within the chimpanzees' home range experience
burning to some degree.
Chimps have calm understanding of wildfires
The researchers interpret the chimpanzees' behavior to the wildfires
as being predictive, rather than responsive, in that they showed no
signals of stress or fear -- other than avoiding the fire as it
"It was the end of the dry season, so the fires burn so hot and burn
up trees really fast, and they [the chimps] were so calm about it.
They were a lot better than I was, that's for sure," said Pruetz, who
was selected a 2008 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for her
previous research on the savanna chimpanzees at the Fongoli research
site in Senegal.
"They [the chimps] were experts at predicting where it was going to
go," she continued. "I could predict it, sort of, but if it were just
me, I would have left. At one time, I actually had to push through
them because I could feel the heat from the fire that was on the side
of me and I just wasn't that comfortable with it."
Pruetz says it was hard to find previous research on how other animals
interacted with fire. But the few examples that she and LaDuke found
-- such as elephants' encounters with similar wildfires -- reported
that those animals were highly stressed and experienced high mortality
In their paper, the researchers wrote that the control of fire by
humans involves the acquisition of these three cognitive stages:
1. Conceptualization of fire. An understanding of the behavior under
varying conditions that would allow one to predict its movement, thus
permitting activity in close proximity to the fire.
2. The ability to control fire. Involving containment, providing or
depriving the fire of fuel and perhaps the ability to put it out.
3. The ability to start a fire.
According to Pruetz, the Fongoli chimpanzees have mastered the first
stage, which is the prerequisite to the other two. But she doesn't see
them figuring out how to start a fire anytime soon -- at least, not
"I think they could learn. It might be difficult only because of their
dexterity, since they're less dexterous than us," she said. "But
naturally, I can't ever see them making fire. I think cognitively they
are able to control it (stage 2)."
Displaying a new "fire dance"
Yet they are very aware of fire and its power. In fact, Pruetz reports
that the chimps have developed a unique "fire dance."
"Chimps everywhere have what is called a 'rain dance' -- Jane Goodall
(a famed primatologist) coined that term -- and it's just a big male
display (to show dominance)," she said. "Males display all the time
for a number of different reasons, but when there's a big thunderstorm
approaching, they do this real exaggerated display -- it's almost like
slow motion. And when I was with this one party of chimps, the
dominant male did the same sort of thing, but it was towards the fire,
so I call it the fire dance.
"The other interesting thing was that I heard a vocalization that I
never heard before [the fire dance] and I've never heard since,"
She says the study provides insight into how the earliest human
ancestors first developed the ability to control fire.
"If chimps can understand and predict the movement of fire, then maybe
that's the thing that allowed some of the very earliest bipedal apes
[human ancestors] to eventually be able to control fire," she said.
Pruetz will be continuing her research in Senegal during the spring
semester. It is sponsored, in part, by the National Geographic
Society, in addition to Iowa State.
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