Do chimpanzees throwing rocks at trees prove they engage in religious ritual? Well, various media reports on one such study would certainly have us believe they do! The media has been buzzing with this story, and since we keep seeing news reports about it weeks later, I thought I would comment on the story.
Researchers studying chimpanzees in West Africa discovered a previously unknown behavior: chimpanzees, particularly the males, throw rocks at trees and into holes in trees. This throwing is accompanied by, among other things, hooting. These researchers suggest that perhaps this is evidence of ritualized behavior in chimpanzees. They also believe chimp behavior can shed light on human ancestry and how we supposedly developed religious rituals.
In a blog post, one of the researchers involved in the study says, “It could be more symbolic than [a dominance display]—and more reminiscent of our own past. Marking pathways and territories with signposts such as piles of rocks is an important step in human history. Figuring out where chimps' territories are in relation to rock throwing sites could give us insights into whether this is the case here. Even more intriguing than this, maybe we found the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees.”
Now from this study and the accompanying blog post, the media went wild with the idea that this somehow proves that chimpanzees have some kind of proto-religious belief that gave rise to religious rituals in early humans. Of course, this belief is nonsense. We aren’t related to chimpanzees, so their behavior teaches us nothing about what our supposed ancestors did. Humans were created in the image of God from the very beginning with both intelligence and knowledge of God. This knowledge did not need to evolve over time from some kind of ape-like ancestors.
The observational evidence shows that some chimpanzees hoot and throw rocks at holes in trees. The idea that it’s an example of proto-religious behavior or ritual is simply an interpretation (and a false one at that) of the evidence—and certainly not the likeliest interpretation. Those involved in the study note that there are other interpretations of the evidence, such as that this behavior is a display of dominance (chimps have long been known to drum on hollow tree roots to assert dominance) or that it serves as a communication function.
Now I don’t think that these chimps are throwing rocks at trees in some kind of religious ritual, but whatever this behavior is accomplishing, we can be sure that it has nothing to do with our supposed evolutionary ancestry! Because God created chimps—like many other creatures such as dolphins, dogs, and crows—to be intelligent, this somewhat creative display of dominance or communication is not surprising. It’s another example of animals using what’s in their environment to accomplish a task.
Scripture does poetically talk about animals knowing their Creator and creation praising God but never in the context of ritual or shrines; therefore it seems highly unlikely that these chimps are recognizing God in their behavior. Humans, alone made in God’s image, are the only beings in God’s creation capable of communicating with Him and having a relationship with Him. However, the psalmist writes,
Praise Him, sun and moon;
Praise Him, all you stars of light!
Praise Him, you heavens of heavens,
And you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
For He commanded and they were created. . . .
Praise the Lord from the earth,
You great sea creatures and all the depths;
Fire and hail, snow and clouds;
Stormy wind, fulfilling His word;
Mountains and all hills;
Fruitful trees and all cedars;
Beasts and all cattle;
Creeping things and flying fowl. . . .
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
For His name alone is exalted;
His glory is above the earth and heaven. (Psalm 148:3–5, 7–10, 13)
All of creation—from the moon and stars to the insects and fruit trees—praises and proclaims the glory of God. Instead of seeing some kind of evolutionary significance to chimpanzees throwing rocks, these researchers should join with all of creation giving praise to the Lord Jesus Christ who made the earth and everything in it for His glory.
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for praying,
This item was written with the assistance of AiG’s research team.