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Chimpanzees and Fire

on January 2, 2010

ScienceNOW: “When Fire Approaches, Chimps Keep Their CoolWhen it comes to fires, chimpanzees keep their cool. Does this “reveal a primitive hominid trait”?

Iowa State University primatologist Jill Pruetz has drawn on personal experience in recent research that suggests chimpanzees “conceptualize” fire. When in Senegal in 2006, Pruetz followed a band of chimpanzees as they calmly worked their way around a savanna fire. “I was very surprised at how good they were at judging the threat and predicting the behavior of fire,” she explained. The chimps’ calm behavior sets them apart from many animals that would quickly become agitated and race off in response to flames.

The chimps’ calm behavior sets them apart from many animals.

According to Pruetz and East Stroudsburg University paleontologist Thomas LaDuke, chimps seem to understand that fire has predictable behavior—and thus, unlike many other animals, chimps can control their natural fear of fire and rationally work to avoid its reach. Of course, because this behavior is also found in humans, the evolutionary researchers suggest such fire-awareness—as found in chimps—is a “primitive hominid trait.” Such thinking is apparent in the comments of University of Amsterdam sociologist Joop Goudsblom, who likens the chimp behavior toward fire to that of “early hominins”:

“To manipulate fire and use it for your purposes you have to step back from it, not run away. It sounds a bit odd, but it makes sense if you go back a million years. Somehow, we managed to find the proper combination of curiosity and foresight—which is what’s needed if you want regular association with fire.”

But chimps’ calm attitude toward fire—and apparent ability to suppress an emotional response to it—is a far cry from man’s controlled use of fire and the chimps’ response to fire and does not in any way demonstrate an evolutionary link between humans and apes. Rather, it simply reminds us that chimpanzees, like some other animals, are intelligent creatures with some capabilities similar to man’s. Likewise, news of chimpanzee tool use no more shows that chimps are man’s closest evolutionary kin than news of crow tool use shows that we descended from birds.

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