Ritualized behavior? Chimps all throw rocks at the same tree – Ars Technica

“Whether it really represents ritualistic behavior is up for debate,” said Kalan. “Human ritual is already a contentious topic, so it’s hard to know what exactly we’re looking for when it comes to ‘rituals.’ We do think that the repeated, stereotyped behavior… by multiple individuals suggests there may be something more symbolic going on at these accumulative stone throwing sites.

”The study is “remarkable in its scope,” Dean told Ars—the researchers have data from 17 different sites, and they studied another 34 different chimp communities, a breadth that few studies manage. One element of the discovery that’s confusing, he added, is that it contradicts findings from experiments with captive chimps: studies have found that while humans are perfectly happy to copy actions when they can’t see the point of them (like ritual behaviors), chimps just want to get straight to the point. That makes it difficult to see how a ritualized behavior could develop in chimp society. “It’s a very interesting idea,” he said, but “I think … there’d need to be more investigation before we could really say it was that kind of ritualized behavior.” The “display” explanation, he added, is feasible.

From: Ritualized behavior? Chimps all throw rocks at the same tree | Ars Technica

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25 thoughts on “Ritualized behavior? Chimps all throw rocks at the same tree – Ars Technica

  1. Hard to know what to think about this. When I ran across this story a couple days ago the first thing that came to mind was to wonder if it’s some kind of territorial thing: either marking a boundary or a symbolic / ritualistic attack against the territory of a neighboring troop.


    • symbolic / ritualistic attack against the territory of a neighboring troop.

      Given that chimps have been observed throwing sticks and stones as weapons/hunting tools, “a game of target practice” doesn’t seem out of the question. And games can of course be “war play”.


      • Could be some combination of both I suppose. My only question is why those particular trees? As opposed to whatever target happens to be handy when the urge to play that way strikes them. Too bad we can’t just ask them. ;)

        BTW, everything I know about primatology I learned from Discover magazine and such. IOW, not much.


          • Indeed. But doesn’t that sound like a kind of ritual or tradition or culture or whatever you want to call it? I mean… what does calling something a ritual actually mean anyway? Is there anything more to it than a kind of behavioral inertia? What does that say about human rituals and traditions and, ultimately, the people who cling to them so fiercely?


            • Why do humans go to the archery range or the firing range for their target practice instead of just anywhere? Well, for one, it’s because that’s where it’s known that missiles will be flying, so watch your a*s.

              I mean, we can call that “ritual”, but it starts to have weird religious connotations; they are social animals, they have social conventions.

              One may be “don’t just start winging rocks around randomly, someone from your troop might get hurt; if you want to do that, do it at the Rock-Winging Place”.


  2. This is why they won’t give me posting privileges here. They know I would splice a clip of a Trump rally with this article.


  3. “Alright everybody, huddle up, huddle up. Is this everyone? Where’s Bill and his orangutan breath? Fuck it, someone’s just gonna have to fill him in later. Anyway, Susan here was hanging out in a tree earlier when she saw a pair of those ugly furless apes drop off a camera over there under in an abandoned termite mound. So we, Susan and I, were thinking we might do something to fuck with them. Any ideas?”

    “We could fling poop at it?”

    “What are you, a juvenile gibbon? Anyone else?”

    “Hit it with a rock?”

    “Well that’s just gonna break it, which kinda defeats the purpose.”

    “How ’bout we throw rocks at the tree next to it?”

    “Brilliant! They’ll spend years trying to figure out the significance of that. OK everyone, if you pass the tree, pick up a rock and throw it at it. And have fun, make a whole display out of it. Let’s confuse the hell out of those furless freaks.”


  4. I remember at the zoo once I watched a polar bear repeatedly go back and forth across its pen, in and out of the water, kicking off the wall, in a VERY specific way. Each repetition was nearly identical to the last. I approached a zookeeper and asked, worried that the behavior indicated some sort of mental or emotional stress on the animal’s part.

    She responded with, “What do you think the bear would say if he saw you on a treadmill?”

    It was a good point. I’m not sure it was correct because the rationale for running on a treadmill is different — and likely requires all sorts of mental processes that the bear lacks. More than anything, it made clear that we really have no frickin’ clue how animal brains work. Hell, we barely even understand human brains.


  5. What’s interesting is I’ve been batting around a post about that story about the monkeys in the cage who get sprayed when they climb to the top of a ladder for a banana. And eventually the monkeys start pounding on any monkey who approaches the ladder because they all get sprayed. Over time, they replace the monkeys one by one such that none of the original monkeys are there. No monkey in the cage has ever been sprayed. But they all still pound on any monkey approaching the ladder because that is what they’ve learned. They don’t know why they do it. They just do it. It is meant to be a criticism of, “We’re just doing what we always do.”

    But the problem I have with that story is that it fails to recognize that the monkeys are actually correct to pound on one another! Maybe they weren’t given the reason — meaning the lesson was incomplete — but unless things have changed, the monkeys are going to get sprayed if anyone goes up the ladder!

    Now, given that I’m pretty sure that story isn’t actually true (but, hey, if I’m wrong, correct me!), it does indicate the way in which “rules” can be handed down. Essentially, socialization and acculturation take place. I guess the question is does this happen in the animal kingdom? A book I’m currently reading suggests it does and highlights two groups of the same species of monkeys in similar but distinct habitats, one of which uses sticks to eat and the other of which doesn’t.


    • Well, we can also recognize – at least from your reduced version – that things might have changed. We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible. And it’s pretty reasonable for the monkeys, even if the story has been fully transmitted, to say, “Hey. Are we sure that’s actually going to happen? We don’t have a lot of evidence for it at this point.” And then they go test and it happens or it doesn’t.

      Basically, we can experiment: check and see if our ancestral knowledge actually describes reality by (occasionally, carefully) doing forbidden things. If bad things happen, back off, that rule was there for a reason and the reason was good. If not, try to figure out what was actually going on so you can get the rule right (assuming it’s applicable at all – offending Hammurabi probably isn’t a reason to do or not do any particular thing anymore).


      • I agree wholeheartedly. The “moral” of the story as I understood it in the manner in which it was presented is that we should abandon anything being done “because that is the way we’ve always done things”. To me, that is swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. We shouldn’t blindly accept the “wisdom” of our ancestors, but we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand either. As you said, we should periodically review it and ask ourselves, “Is the way we are doing things the way we ought to be doing things?”

        I don’t think we should be thinking, “Stupid monkeys. And stupid people who act like those monkeys.” Which was how I read it. But maybe that is my own bias peaking through.


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