Does Mr or Mrs Chimpanzee believe in God? That’s an odd thought, isn’t it? How would you even know what lay behind their inscrutable eyes , deep in the core of the convoluted brain of our nearest and dearest simian cousin, for Dear’s sake? Those kind of ideas might not occur to many as they wolf down their toast and Punjana while rifling through the morning papers. It didn’t bother my thoughts much but I like to buy a copy of the “New Scientist ” magazine on occasion and poke about to see if they ‘ve come up with a cure for dementia or cancer before either of those two nemeses claim me. Another inquisitive magazine, “Nature” recently ran an article , in part referring to the above question or other possibilities .I find that kind of thing interesting.
A few years ago it was was supposed that our furry relatives were generally peace-loving ,fruit eating vegetarians until it was discovered that they also had a well-developed taste for meat and were not averse to hunting down the occasional monkey , in organised raiding packs ,sometimes even using spears to finally corral and tear apart their catch in time for lunch. It came as something of a shock that they could be as vicious, volatile and omnivorous as we, ourselves.We, of course had developed our own killing skills to factory-farming proportions because we are an incredibly inventive and imaginative creature. I couldn’t imagine chimpanzees developing intensive chicken-rearing facilities or rearing cattle for slaughter , but who knows what it might be like in a “Planet of the Apes” future dystopian scenario. Maybe in a few million or so years when we’ve colonised Mars or further afield , what remains of the Earth’s fauna population may be left to develop in all sorts of entirely new directions.
Back to those present-day chimpanzees then .It has been discovered that besides raising families , playing with primitive toys and the slaughtering and sharing of the odd monkey for dinner ,West African chimpanzees are engaging in what might be a wargame or possibly a ritual or sorts .When you consider that really all we believe they should only be thinkng about is winning mates and feeding themselves, what possible purpose would any other behaviour possibly serve for them? The chimpanzees have been spotted on camera throwing rocks at specific trees and piling up stones into the gaps inside them.What could the purpose of something like this behaviour be?There doesn’t seem to be any rational function, so scientists are surmising that this might even be a primitive form of a religious or deep-seated ,sacred kind of ritual ,gradually developing ,or it may simply be more evidence of territorial marking ; the simian equivalent of crowing on top of the dung hill . On the other hand , as chimpanzees share some 98% of our DNA, the study of this behaviour might allow scientists to better understand how this kind of behaviour possibly evolved from such humble origins to grow into the basis of a religious experience that humans gradually devloped and how these same behaviours influenced our own ancient histories.Maybe we did something similar back in our jungle- roistering days. After all we shared the same kind of origin story before we swung out of the trees to walk the African plains. We would have been not unlike these chimpanzees given our low-browed brain structure and skull sizes back then.It might be the place to start looking for clues….
Back in time, humans piled up stones into ritual cairns and these stone piles have been witnessed throughout human history’s development. “Cairn” is an old gaelic word which has been applied to the piles of stones humans have built for millennia.They can still be seen right across the world in various cultures and have been used as directional markers.They date back to megalithic times and have been built in a variety of sizes , from small conical piles to fully, seemingly-engineered large stone hills. They are still often erected as monuments and land markers as they have been used from time-immemorial, but in ancient times they have possibly been also used as tombs when the idea of first burying the dead, instead of eating them ,began, as well as for ceremonial or reasons to do with the movement of the mysterious sun and stars overhead. They might even have been erected as tribal demarcation borders in some cases.
Chimpanzees and a variety of animals and birds have already proven that tool-use isn’t a soley human activity. Chimpanzees and birds have used sticks and stones as tools to easier access food. That has been well documented, but what can be made of a behaviour than shows no apparent “physical” gain at all? Why would chimpanzees or humans , come to that , decide to pile up stones at a specific spot? It may begin as one particular function such as a direction -marker and end as a tombstone.
It has been successfully observed that the chimpanzees choose specific trees on which to exhibit this novel behaviour.They obviously have their reasons to see these trees as special in some respect. That idea alone is indicative of some interesting mental processes in operation. Why would they choose to do that at all when there seems to be no obvious benefit? It has been studied how humans over the eons have collected artefacts and stones at specific locations and they have been gathered in shrines and burial mounds. Some of these are associated with the earliest recording of human religious behaviour in history on our earth. Scientists believe that in a similar vein this same instinct develops in other animals and in this case, the chimpanzee is the focus.It seems to represent a developing evolutionary process in many animals.
It’s a fact that collecting stones at “sacred” trees is a behaviour also practised by many people currently living in West Africa and is seen also in many other places across the world . Could the chimpanzees have witnessed this and simply copied it from humans or is this a behavioural tic built into them at a genetic level ? They do not appear to be copying and anyway , why would those original trees attended to by humans and blessed with stones, be deemed “sacred” in the first place? There doesn’t appear to be any specific answer and this kind of behaviour is something entirely new as regards chimpanzees.It is the case that the behaviour of collecting stones and piling them up for ritualistic reasons is already well documented and worth looking at.Sometimes men going into battle each placed a stone ceremoniously in a pile and if they survived , they returned to reclaim their life by removing a stone from the same pile.There is much interesting lore to be learned associated with these ancient practices..
Laura Kehoe of the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany allowed her curiousity to make her set up cameras at some trees she’d noticed that had strange scratches and markings on them. The filmed images she recovered from the shoot astounded her. The chimpanzees whacked these trees and threw rocks at them , making loud sounds, as if to mark territory or offer a challenge to something unknown and beyond them. Then the rocks were piled up inthe same spot within the hollow.It sounds not unlike that scene in the opening of Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001 A Space Odyssey” where the destruction and chatter by the ape-like creatures around the black obelisc rapidly cuts to a vision of the far reaches of space and the future.
So is this how we began our first explorations into a mental mythos beyond our known physical world and gradually began developing the idea of an alternative reality populated by our own dead ancestors and a variety of gods? Are chimpanzees already on that same trail and will the world someday , when we humans are busily colonising other planets, be populated by the ancestors of these same chimpanzees, all believing in a plethora of gods , religions and sacred religious practices .Or is this simply a noisy wargame, a sabre-rattling threat , or the beginning of marking and signposting territories.Who really knows what goes on in the hearts of chimps?
What are the odds on the first chimpanzee druid or buddhist , anyone?