Charlotte Uhlenbroek – Chimpanzees social

Chimpanzees basic social interactions are very familiar – is there anything significant at this level that separates us from them?

The evolution of symbolism and our communication was really what allowed us to take the path that we have. The fact that I can have this conversation with you – talk to you in depth about chimpanzee behaviour – it puts us in a whole different league.

Apart from watching adults, how else do juvenile chimps learn?

There’s very little evidence of active teaching. A female with a baby while she’s ‘termiting’, or using a tool to crack open nuts, will carry on with whatever she’s doing.

The little one will just start by playing around and picking up the termite stick. Then gradually it will start to try to do something a bit like what its [parent] is doing.

You don’t ever see a mother putting a tool into an infant’s hand, for example, or showing it how to hold it properly.

If you took a baby chimp from the wild and placed it in captivity, would it be deprived of certain skills?

Yes. There’s a critical age up to about seven or eight after which they will never try, no matter how much they’re sitting around with other chimps doing something. It’s as if that whole mimicry and experimental stage is over. It’s always amazed me that if a chimp has come from a different community, where they don’t use a particular tool, they just sort of sit around, while all the others, say, crack open nuts.

Charlotte UhlenbroekHow unpredictable are chimpanzees?

There are patterns of behaviour that are fairly predictable, but having said that there are many, many days that took me by surprise. On one occasion I was sitting in the forest with a chimp called Prof: he just lay down under a tree and his foot was resting on a hollow log. He just tapped his foot on the log and it made quite a resonant sound. Then he tapped his foot again, repeatedly over the next five or so minutes. I thought that was extraordinary.

So chimps drum on trees?

They drum on buttress [roots], but I’ve never seen that kind of experimental tapping. It was almost as if I was witnessing his discovery of music – the earliest seeds of that appreciation of a sound for its own sake. On another occasion there was a young chimp who was crossing a stream and he stopped halfway across. He put his hand palm up into the water and he was just lifting the water up and letting it fall through his fingers.

He seemed to be mesmerised by the light and patterns, and the water itself… There are always surprises that make you think they are interested in the world around them beyond just finding food and keeping dry, etc.