May 13, 2010
— Christian Sheppard
Two new ethological studies tell us how chimpanzees grieve, raising doubts about the uniqueness of human mourning as well as, perhaps, the superfluity of religious practice. Laboratory scientists in Scotland have made unprecedented close observations of captive chimpanzees reacting to a long-time group member’s death and conclude that “without death-related symbols or rituals, chimpanzees show several behaviors that recall human responses to the death of a close relative.” Behaviors displayed by these chimps before, during, and after the death of one elderly female include “respect, care, anticipatory grief,” “test for pulse or breath,” “attempted resuscitation,” “denial, feelings of anger toward the deceased,” “night-time vigil,” “consolation, social support,” “disturbed sleep,” “cleaning the body,” “grief, mourning,” and, finally, “leaving objects or places associated with the deceased untouched.” After meticulously detailing the deathbed scene of this beloved chimp grandmother, these scientists are provoked to ask, “Are humans uniquely aware of mortality?” It has long been known that chimpanzees, like humans, possess self-awareness, but that chimpanzees are also aware of their mortality is news that profoundly alters our own self-awareness. Our grief could be a sign, not of our humanity, but that we are apes.
Meanwhile, out of Africa comes other news to further refine awareness of our essential ape-ness. Field ethologists in Bossou, Guinea have studied one wild chimpanzee group’s macabre cultural tradition of “corpse-carrying”: “The carrying of infants' corpses has been reported from a number of primate species, both in captivity and the wild — albeit usually lasting a few days only — suggesting a phylogenetic continuity for a behavior that is poignant testament to the close mother-infant bond which extends across different primate taxa.” Corpse-carrying, like other signs of grief, may point to an awareness of mortality, but in Bossou grieving mothers have been observed carrying and caring for their children’s bodies over two months after death. “Corpse-carrying may have become something of a Bossou "tradition", admits Bossou’s lead-scientist Dora Biro, suggesting that one chimp mother may have learned to carry her dead infant from another mother, who had been observed performing the behavior twice before. It seems that chimpanzees not only grieve like us, but like us, they also invent traditions to deal with their grief. Further ethological work in the lab and field may someday reveal what such culturally transmitted traditions mean for chimpanzees, but for humans, it is apparent that we are not the only beings who mourn.
Moreover, we ought to ponder the significance of the fact that chimpanzees, aware of their mortality, grieve and mourn without religious symbol or ritual. While some might be tempted to interpret our fellow apes' mourning behaviors as a sign of some kind of nascent religiosity (although thereby complicating the claim that religion is uniquely human), these studies can be understood as undermining altogether the role of religion in our response to death. Perhaps now better aware of our essential ape-ness in regards to death, grief, and mourning, traditional religious responses can be discarded as inessential. Let the uncanny image of a chimpanzee mother tenderly toting her weather-mummified infant through primordial jungle(http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/images/chimpanzee.jpg) be our post-Darwinian pietà, a post-religious icon to unfix our gaze from such traditional religious images as Mary mourning over her crucified son. Where, for example, Michelangelo’s famous statue in Rome emphasizes the pitiful death of Jesus all the more to anticipate His resurrection and to promise believers their own eventual eternal triumph over death, our ape pietà offers no transcendental context, no after-life, no resurrection, no “good news” (for that matter, no reincarnation and no nirvana), no means of escape from our primal tearful awareness of our mortality. So observing our chimpanzee kin raises our awareness of life’s amazing, wonderful variety, as well as life’s fearful finitude.
For access to videos of chimpanzee mourning behavior see the BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8645283.stm as well as New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18818-how-chimps-mourn-their-dead.html).
The Scottish study: James R. Anderson, Alasdair Gillies and Louise C. Lock, “Pan Thanatology,” Current Biology Vol 20 No 8 (http://download.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/PIIS0960982210001454.pdf?intermediate=true).
The African study: Dora Biro, Tatyana Humle, Kathelijne Koops, Claudia Sousa, Misato Hayashi and Tetsuro Matsuzawa,”Chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea carry the mummified remains of their dead infants,” Current Biology, Vol 20 No 8 (http://download.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/PIIS0960982210002186.pdf?intermediate=true ).
Christian Sheppard is co-editor of Mystics: Presence and Aporia (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and is currently completing a memoir on mourning the death of his father after the death of God.