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The Brutal Ape vs. the Sexy Ape?

Craig Stanford

For hundreds of years the apes have served as funhouse mirrors for what the human species once was, or perhaps might have been had evolution taken a different course. Among the four species of great apes, the chimpanzees have received the lion's share of attention as models of early humanity. Until the 1960s, however, when Jane Goodall first set out for Tanzania, we didn't know much about wild chimpanzees. What Goodall found shocked us: Chimpanzees were not only extremely clever, they also had complex societies and adept tool-using abilities, and they loved raw meat. In the decades that followed, field researchers observed other "human qualities" in wild chimpanzees: intercommunity warfare and lethal territorial aggression, cooperative hunting for other mammals (with the spoils of the hunt ritually shared and used as the bargaining chips of political and sexual barter), and the manufacture and use of tools made of plant products and, at some sites, of stone! These studies turned our view of chimpanzees (and of ourselves) on its head.

That chimpanzees are not vegetarian pacifists came as a surprise in anthropological circles when Goodall first reported the chimps' omnivorous appetites. Some scholars even alleged that the lethal aggression seen during encounters between neighboring social groups was aberrant behavior, occurring only in animals disturbed by human contact. But as the field data accumulated it became clear that the brutal side of chimpanzees is quite real. Males strive to ascend a rigid dominance hierarchy and on reaching high rank wield their political power in brutal ways. Sexual coercion and beating of females who do not submit to male desires are routine. Males patrol the perimeter of their territory, attacking and sometimes murdering their unwary neighbors. Chimpanzees at two study sites in Tanzania (Gombe National Park and Mahale National Park) were observed to fission into two separate communities, after which the larger community in each case systematically exterminated the smaller community. Such "warfare" has been seen in only two primate species, humans and chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are also efficient and ruthless predators, consuming hundreds of prey animals including monkeys, antelope and wild pigs. Their attacks on their favorite prey, the red colobus monkey, are brutal and dramatic. The hunts often involve hand-to-hand combat between a chimp and a monkey, a match that is usually won by the chimp. Small-bodied juveniles are killed by a bite to the neck, whereas adult monkeys are thrashed against the ground or a tree limb. The meat is distributed in Machiavellian fashion by high-ranking males who share with allies and kin, but withhold the prize from rivals. They also use meat to entice ovulating females to mate with them—an orgy of meat eating and sex straight out of Tom Jones.

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