primatology

So Many Primates for Primatology

Update 2016: See the Primatology and Primates notes for my Introduction to Anthropology 2016 course.


I once asked students to write about their most recent anthropology course, explaining what they liked best and what they liked least. One student chose “Primates and Primatology” and then for the best part wrote “so many primates.” He then wrote the same thing in the worst part: “So many primates.”

As Jonathan Marks notes in his 2011 humorous blog-post review A first lecture on primate taxonomy, anthropologists and primatologists have documented a much larger variety of primate species than previously imagined: in the 1980s there were fewer than 200 primate species documented, but primatology now acknowledges over 400. Somewhat ironically–and sadly–this is concurrent with habitat loss and endangerment for many primates.

This also prompts the reasonable question of why anthropologists spend so much time documenting the number of species of non-human primates as well as their different activities by group and individually. Most people assume primatology is about getting a sense of our closest relatives, establishing an evolutionary baseline of human traits.

It is not. What anthropological primatology documents is an astounding range of variation in primate species, as well as different group and individual behavior.

Primatology reveals there is no single primate behavior pattern at the base of human evolution.

Chimpanzees and bonobos are equally related to the most recent common ancestor with human beings. Chimpanzee and bonobo behavior varies, both between species and within different groups. There are yet other patterns with gorillas, gibbons, and orangutans. Moreover, these species have been evolving for the 6-12 million years since splitting off from the lines that would lead to hominids. Any contemporary behavior may have evolved independently and cannot be assumed to be a common ancestral model. “As it turns out, there is not one generalized ‘primate pattern’ found in nature but a variety of patterns with some common themes” (MacKinnon and Fuentes 2005:87; see also the blog-post The Better Bonobos of Our Nature by Eric Michael Johnson in his blog The Primate Diaries).

In a 2011 blog-post titled Humans And Other Animals: A Voice From Anthropology, anthropologist Barbara J. King urges us to avoid the “species-level trap”:

The species-level trap is an easy lure. You’ve heard the claims, maybe, about chimpanzees and bonobos? Chimpanzees are the male-violent, make-war apes, whereas their close cousins the bonobos are female-empowered and sexy-pacific. Don’t believe it, at least not in this overly-simple form. Gentle chimpanzees and feisty bonobos exist, as do apes who one day are kind and the next cruel, shaped (as are we humans) by some combination of how they were raised, their day-to-day social encounters and their genetics.

This is especially important when popular media has depicted non-human primates as the source of supposed innate tendencies toward male aggression, dominance, and violence–see the 2013 edited volume War, Peace, and Human Nature and see also the 2012 blog-post by Agustín Fuentes, Bad to the Bone: Are Humans Naturally Aggressive?

Even among the usually more aggressive chimpanzees, documented cases of lethal violence and war-like behavior are relatively rare, occurring in some groups but not others (MacKinnon and Fuentes 2005:92). And most of the best documented cases, those that have most captured the public imagination, happened at Gombe, the site of Jane Goodall’s original primatology research.

With this in mind, it is instructive to return to the early primatology footage from Gombe, contained in the National Geographic film Among the Wild Chimpanzees (1984). As the film unfolds, it becomes clear how much humans interact with chimpanzees. Access to human artifacts upsets chimpanzee hierarchies. One of the non-dominant males discovers he can create a “horrifying noise” by rolling empty kerosene cans: “Originally one of the lowest-ranking males, Mike was now #1.” The chimps spar over human-provided food supplies, fighting with each other and against the baboons. Goodall was one of the first to document chimpanzees hunting baboons, but they had already been fighting baboons over the bananas in the human camp.

Then there are the unforgettable scenes of infanticide, of a female chimp killing and eating another chimp’s infant. But as this takes place, one of the younger chimps “ran over to the two field assistants who were watching this horrifying struggle, stood upright, looked into their eyes, looked back at the scene, and really seemed to be begging for help” (Jane Goodall 1984, my transcription)

As Goodall notes, the powerful homicidal chimp would do this again, fighting off attempts at human intervention. However, what must the chimps have thought of these humans, who obviously did have the technical means to intervene, to prevent further cruelties, but did not?

Is this asking too much of primatology? Perhaps, but people are showing up, tracking down chimpanzees, giving them food, participating in their grooming sessions, giving them names, and befriending them. It must seem pretty strange to the chimps.

Given all that occurred at Gombe–how chimps used human technologies to alter status hierarchies, how they fought among each other and with the baboons for human-supplied food, the friendly interaction, and the cruelty–I take reports of chimpanzee intergroup “warfare” with more than a few grains of salt. This is not to say there is no violence among chimpanzee groups, but simply to wonder about what we can really deduce from the violent incidents we have documented.

After all, can it just be coincidence that the intergroup warfare occurs at the same time when humans have drastically reduced chimpanzee habitats? As habitat shrinks, pushing some groups to the brink of extinction, it is not surprising that something like warfare might intensify. This is not unique to non-human primates–see the 2006 news article by Charles Siebert An Elephant Crackup? for an account of how elephants seem to be turning increasingly erratic and violent as humans encroach on their habitat. And in a 2012 blog-post Desert Trackways: Seven-Million-Year-Old Clues To Elephant Social Complexity, anthropologist Barbara J. King agrees with Siebert “that the evidence for elephant post-traumatic stress disorder is compelling. It’s only gotten worse for elephants in the years since he wrote his piece.”

Margaret G. Power was an early critic of the interpretations from Gombe. Her 1995 article Gombe Revisited: Are chimpanzees violent and hierarchical in the ‘free’ state? is a fascinating assessment of what we can and cannot learn from the Gombe research, since the artificial feeding introduced stress and frustration into the chimpanzee group. I would not want to conclude there is a natural egalitarianism in chimpanzee societies, as Power seems to do in The Egalitarians–Human and Chimpanzee (1991), but her critique that we cannot assume a natural hierarchy and warfare is well-founded.

Unfortunately, the message is hardly heard in many popular accounts. In a 2011 news article which should focus on human sharing and sociality, Nicholas Wade exaggerates the contrast of humans with chimpanzees, claiming chimpanzees are “a cluster of small, hostile groups constantly at war with each other, the default state of chimpanzee society” (Supremacy of a Social Network). Once again, this varies between chimpanzee groups, can hardly be called a default state, and is not necessarily true of equally related non-human primates, such as bonobos.

Unlike the original Gombe footage, more recent primatology film of chimpanzees strives to be naturalistic, with less obvious human intervention. In the “Food for Thought” section of the 2003 film series The Life of Mammals there is amazing footage of a chimpanzee hunting party brutally attacking a troop of colobus monkeys. The footage is incredible, but what kind of camera setup and interaction did it take to get those shots?

The first time I posed this question in class, a puzzled look came over one student’s face, as she asked in disbelief: “Are you saying they’re acting?” Not exactly, although I would not rule it out. The great apes are extremely intelligent and creative creatures. Do we really think we can send in a film crew and it goes unnoticed?

The larger point remains: when we study the myriad primate species, with differing behaviors by species, by group, and individually, what we do not see is one single primate pattern accessible as ancestral basis. There are so many primates.


Next: 1.9 – Bipedalism is Also Called Walking
Previous: 1.7 – Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied


To cite: Antrosio, Jason, 2012. So Many Primates for Primatology. Living Anthropologically, http://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology/so-many-primates-primatology/. Last updated July 23, 2012.

For additional references and comments on primatology and anthropology, see Primatology, Anthropology, Genetics at the companion blog, Anthropology Report.

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  • Martha Catherine

    I used to have such a narrow minded view on evolution and how primates connected to evolution. In my limited view I believed they were in a line like that age old evolution picture. After reading this article I see that there is in fact more to primates than a picture of a ape turning slowly into a man. It is actually quite fascinating to me.

    • Hi Martha, thank you for the observations. Definitely the picture of ape-turning-into-man or primates-becoming-human needs to be revised, and the diversity of primates is one place to start.

  • Brittany Mackey

    This reading thoroughly explained primates and how their aggression revolved around two main essentials that kept their species to survive; food and sex. Although fighting between the primates was rare, it occurred because it’s impossible to live without food and if there’s no reproduction than species would die off (Fry 361). Studying primates catches my attention because of how similar human behaviors are compared to other species.

  • Abby

    It was interesting to find out that traditionally living apes were divided into three sections and that humans were a part of one of these sections. The first section being lesser apes, the second the great apes, and the third hominids or humans. I didn’t know of such a division and it was even more interesting to find out that they want to reclassify within the great ape and human category because of some apes (gorillas and chimps) having more in common with humans than with other apes. (L.S. 104-105)

    • Hi Abby, thanks! The re-classification by genetics has certainly led to some interesting results. However, as we’ll discuss in the section on tool use (see Stone Tools for 2.5 million years), we may want to be careful not to completely rely on genetic re-classifications.

  • Casey Holmberg

    If so many of these primates are millions of years separated from the line that would lead to hominids, why do we study them so intensely? And why do we immediately assume their behavior somehow tells us something about or parallels our behavior as humans? To me, it seems that there are way too many variables to account for in the millions of years of separate development. It seems to me that people view all primates or “monkeys” (which I hear more often) as some kind of “beta-human,” as though with a little less development (namely our larger brains), we would be exactly like them. I feel like this image of primates is inherently flawed, yet unfortunately it permeates the majority of mainstream thought.

    • Hi Casey, thank you for commenting. Indeed, we need to take a lot of care when looking at primate parallels, but it does still seem a useful exercise to study behavior of our closest cousins.

  • Nathan Force

    In LS it states how Chimpanzees will use tools to make getting food easier. While reading this article, I found it really interesting that they would use human made items to obtain a higher hierarchy, like the chimp who basically annoyed everyone by rolling a kerosene can around. They would also fight over food that humans give them like it’s more important or better.

    • Hi Nathan, thank you for the comment. Chimpanzee tool use is certainly interesting and we’ll be talking more about co-evolution with tools (see the section on Stone Tools for 2.5 million years). And of course, the interaction with human beings and their tools is one reason why some primatologists are beginning to say that all primatology is ethnoprimatology.