Fongoli Chimps
Fongoli Chimps

Photograph by: Frans Lanting, National Geographic April 2008

As our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees have long had a strong hold on the human imagination, and we often watch their behavior for signs of what we might have been like millennia ago. Though anthropologists are quick to explain that there's no guarantee a given chimp behavior reproduces a behavior of our early ancestors (since we did branch off and go our own way), comparisons can be irresistible.

For several years chimpanzee researchers in Senegal have been following a particular group of savanna-woodland chimps. Their territory resembles the habitats where early humans might have started to move out of the trees and onto open ground. The group, called Fongoli after a seasonal stream in the area, consists of 35 chimps that have been largely habituated to the presence of humans. The males, in particular, have become so accustomed to the researchers that they behave as if they weren't being observed.

The researchers have been surprised by some of the chimps' unusual--or at least previously undocumented--habits: sitting in water to cool off, retreating to caves for additional relief from the heat, and sharpening sticks to poke hard at sleeping bush babies so they're immobilized and ready to eat. Researchers have known for decades that chimpanzees hunt other vertebrates, but now they've been documented hunting with tools.

These behaviors and others--such as termite fishing, drinking water out of small puddles with leaf sponges, rock throwing, and rain dancing--are being called evidence of chimpanzee culture. Groups of chimpanzees across Africa do each of these actions differently--one group fishes for termites with small sticks, another with grasses; dances differ in length and intensity; rocks are thrown into water or not. With no genetic explanation for the differences, each variation appears to be transmitted culturally to other members of the group.

Roach, Mary. "Almost Human." National Geographic (April 2008), 124-145.

McGrew, William. The Cultured Chimpanzee. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Pruetz, Jill D., and Paco Bertolani. "Savanna Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus, Hunt With Tools." Current Biology (March 6, 2007), 412-17.

Whiten, A., and others. "Cultures in Chimpanzees." Nature (June 17, 1999), 682-685.

Other Resources
Primate Info Net Chimpanzee Fact Sheet.

Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation.

The Mind of the Chimpanzee Conference: Topic Abstracts.

National Institutes of Health News: Chimp-Human Genome Comparison.

Aiello, Leslie C., and Peter Wheeler. "The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis: The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution." Current Anthropology (April 1995), 199-221.

Diamond, Jared. The Third Chimpanzee. HarperCollins, 1992.

Goodall, Jane. The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. Harvard University Press, 1986.

McGrew, William. The Cultured Chimpanzee. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Patterson, Nick, and others. "Genetic Evidence for Complex Speciation of Humans and Chimpanzees." Nature (June 29, 2006), 1103-1108.

Stanford, Craig B. The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior. Princeton University Press, 1999.

Wrangham, Richard. Demonic Males. Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997.

Chimpanzee Culture

In the 1950s Japanese anthropologist Kinji Imanishi defined culture as a form of behavioral transmission that doesn't rely on genetics. For decades debate has simmered over whether chimpanzee behaviors can be legitimately called culture. But long-term studies with chimps across Africa provide increasing evidence that chimpanzee culture does exist.

Though female chimpanzees don't appear to actively teach their offspring specific tasks or behaviors, infant chimps spend nearly every moment of their first five years attached to their mothers. Curious and aware, the young chimps watch the female's actions and model her behaviors. These behaviors are continued by the individuals that make up a chimpanzee group and become part of its culture.

In 1999 the journal Nature published a summary report of seven such studies, comparing a list of 65 behavior variations and noting whether an action was customary, habitual, present, or absent at chimpanzee-research sites across Africa. The types of behavior included: pounding, fishing, probing, comforting, using leaves, grooming, and attention getting.

The researchers' aim was to document instances of significant cultural variation at the research sites. Their summary: "Chimpanzees, our closest sister-species, have rich behavioral complexity." They found that the "patterns vary as much between sites associated with the same between subspecies themselves," bolstering the argument for cultural, not genetic, transmission of behaviors.

De Waal, Frans B. M. The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist. Basic Books, 2001.

Whiten, A., and others. "Cultures in Chimpanzees." Nature (June 17, 1999), 682-685.

Other Resources
Nishida, Toshisada, and others. "Ethogram and Ethnography of Mahale Chimpanzees."

Living Links Center at the Yerkes Field Station

Some Top Chimpanzee Field Research Sites

Bossou-Nimba Chimpanzee Research Project
Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, Japan
Location of field site: Republic of Guinea, Africa
Project Director: Tetsuro Matsuzawa
Research Objectives: Study ecology, behavior, and conservation of wild chimpanzees
Field Positions and Volunteers: Contact the researchers at the specified address.
Species Studied: Pan troglodytes verus (chimpanzee)
Project Dates: 1976-present

Budongo Conservation Field Station
MUFFNC, Makerere University
Location of field site: Uganda, Africa
Project Director: F. Babweteera
Research Objectives: Study primates in relation to selective logging, local communities in relation to forest, and wildlife in relation to crop raiding.
Field Positions and Volunteers: Chimpanzee ecologist
Educational Opportunities: No training opportunities available; occasional fieldwork opportunities
Species Studied: Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii (Eastern chimpanzee)
Affiliations: Makerere University, Uganda
Project Dates: 1990-present

Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzee Project
Anthropology, Iowa State University
Location of field site: Kedougou, Senegal, West Africa
Project Director: Jill D. Pruetz
Research Objectives: This long-term study seeks to better understand the effects of a savanna environment on chimpanzee behavior and ecology.
Field Positions and Volunteers: Periodic openings for graduate-level project managers with experience studying chimpanzees as well as wild primates and the ability to speak French (and preferably with experience managing a field project with wild great apes)
Species Studied: Pan troglodytes verus (Western chimpanzee)
Affiliations: Iowa State University
Project Dates: April 2001-present

Kibale Chimpanzee Project
Harvard University
Location of field site: Uganda, Kibale National Park, Africa
Project Director: Richard Wrangham
Research Objectives: Behavior, social relationships, ecology, physiology, and cognition of chimpanzees.
Field Positions and Volunteers: Training available through field courses (visit; doctoral opportunities by contacting director
Species Studied: Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii (Eastern chimpanzee).
Affiliations: National Science Foundation, Leakey Foundation, National Geographic Society, Getty Foundation, USAID, Columbus Zoo
Project Dates: September 1987-unknown

Mahale Mountains Chimpanzee Research Project
Kyoto University, Graduate School of Science
Location of field site: Tanzania, Mahale Mountains National Park, Africa
Project Director: Toshisada Nishida
Research Objectives: Natural history of chimpanzees.
Species Studied: Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii (Eastern chimpanzee) and Procolobus tephrosceles or Colobus badius (red colobus)
Affiliations: Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture (Japan)
Project Dates: October 1965-present

Taï Chimpanzee Project
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Location of field site: Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa
Project Director: Christophe Boesch
Research Objectives: Social behavior and reproductive strategies of chimpanzees, including the use of genetic and hormone testing; comparing feeding ecology and social interactions between three habituated chimpanzee groups; cognitive and cultural abilities in wild chimpanzees; cross-population studies to understand behavioral diversity in wild chimpanzees
Field Positions and Volunteers: Opportunities for master's and doctoral thesis work
Species Studied: Pan troglodytes verus (Western chimpanzee)
Affiliations: Max Planck Society
Project Dates: 1979-present

Last updated February 20, 2008

Keywords Fongoli, chimpanzees, chimpanzee culture, Pruetz, hunting with spears, Pan troglodytes, chimpanzee research