A bizarrely intimate behavior of a chimpanzee was captured by biologists. The chimp appeared to mourning- a ritual common to human beings but is less likely to animals.
Scientists from the University of St Andrews in Scotland
captured such behavior for the first time at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia. They watched as Noel, a wild-born 33-year old female chimpanzee, "attended the dead body of Thomas, a nine-year-old male whom she adopted when his mother died four years earlier."
Another study noted
that “the majority of the group visited Thomas’ body at least once, but when most chimpanzees were lured away with highly attractive food, Noel remained at his body and cleaned his teeth with a grass tool. Nina, her adolescent daughter, stayed at her side and observed the cleaning efforts of her mother."
She then picked a blade of hard grass from the ground, reached Thomas’ mouth, and seemed to clean his teeth. The researchers emphasized that such act is the first ever observation of nonhuman animals using any tool as a death response.
“Death responses represent core features of human civilization with great diversity in mortuary rites found across cultures,” the researchers note. “We present a valid case of unique non-human animal behavior which could shed light on the evolution of behaviors that are believed to be typically human.”
So, are chimps truly emotionally intelligent enough to understand death? Will this shed light on the evolutionary origins of humans ritualizing death?
Well, Thibaud Gruber of the University of Geneva has something to say. He told New Scientist
: “We simply do not know if and how much chimps understand about death. In other words, it is unclear whether this is ‘corpse cleaning’, or simply ‘social cleaning’. But certainly, it adds on behavioral descriptions of unusual behavior displayed by chimps when they face the death of one of their species.”
Its relation to the evolutionary origin also remains to be determined- maybe it actually just has little or nothing to do with anything that humans do. But I hope further studies would be able to clearly determine the motivation behind this seemingly “caring” and “loving” act.