Chimps Perform Rituals. Does That Make Them Spiritual?

Photo: Anup Shah/Getty Images

Recently, a group of scientists in Western Africa was studying four colonies of chimpanzees, when they noticed a curious pattern: The chimps would repeatedly take a carefully cached collection of pebbles and fling them at certain trees. What was most remarkable, however, was that these chimps repeatedly threw the same rocks at the same trees.

They reported their findings last month in Nature, in which they came to two possible conclusions. Maybe, the 80-strong group of scientists theorized, the chimps were simply displaying a form of male dominance. Chimps have been observed to engage in “hand and feet drumming” to show power through sound in a certain location, and flinging stones at a tree might be just another way to do that same behavior a bit more efficiently.

Their second explanation was a bit weirder. Maybe the chimps were performing some kind of ritualistic behavior, not unlike the nearby human societies where stones are used in ceremonial rituals. Might this be a type of copycat behavior?

Laura Kehoe, one of the 80 scientists who co-authored the paper, went a step further in a piece in The Conversation published last month. “Maybe we found the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees,” she wrote in the piece, headlined “Mysterious chimpanzee behaviour may be evidence of ‘sacred’ rituals.” As Barbara J. King — an anthropologist who is also the author of How Animals Grieve points out in The Atlantic, many news outlets took this and went predictably went bonkers, going so far as to consider whether chimpanzees might believe in God.

Even King, the anthropologist who penned The Atlantic’s article, is leery of drawing comparisons between the potential spirituality of chimps with that of humans:

I’m uneasy with making 1:1 comparisons between the meaning of human behaviors performed at trees in the forest and similar chimpanzee behaviors performed there. After all, even if we unbind religion from language, texts, and beliefs—as I think we should—isn’t it incredibly anthropocentric of us to expect other species to think and feel the way we do?

Valid point. Though let’s be honest, going to any place of religious worship would be a lot more interesting with chimps around.