Like humans, wild chimps ‘get’ fire


Anthropologist Jill Pruetz has been studying wild chimps in Senegal and reports that they show  human-like understanding of fire. Pruetz’s discovery that the chimps at her Fongoli site are the first non-humans to routinely use primitive spear-shaped tools to hunt other vertebrates rocked the science world nearly three years ago. One of the spear-shaped tools will appear in a new exhibition hall opening next year at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History.

IOWA STATE (US)—Humans were thought to process a unique ability to use fire, but now anthropologist Jill Pruetz reports that savanna chimpanzees in Senegal have a near human understanding of wildfires and change their behavior in anticipation of fire’s movement.

Data on the chimps’ behavior with seasonal fires was collected by Pruetz, an Iowa State University associate professor, during two specific encounters in March and April 2006. She reports that wildfires are set yearly by humans for land clearing and hunting, and most areas within the chimpanzees’ home range experience burning to some degree.

In their study, Pruetz and coauthor Thomas LaDuke, an associate professor of biological sciences at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University, interpret the chimpanzees’ behavior to the wildfires as being predictive, rather than responsive, in that they showed no signals of stress or fear—other than avoiding the fire as it approached them. Their findings are scheduled for online publication today in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

“It was the end of the dry season, so the fires burn so hot and burn up trees really fast, and they [the chimps] were so calm about it. They were a lot better than I was, that’s for sure,” says Pruetz, who was selected a 2008 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for her previous research on the savanna chimpanzees at the Fongoli research site in Senegal.

“They [the chimps] were experts at predicting where it was going to go,” she continued. “I could predict it, sort of, but if it were just me, I would have left. At one time, I actually had to push through them because I could feel the heat from the fire that was on the side of me and I just wasn’t that comfortable with it.”

Pruetz says it was hard to find previous research on how other animals interacted with fire. But the few examples that she and LaDuke found—such as elephants’ encounters with similar wildfires—reported that those animals were highly stressed and experienced high mortality rates.

In their paper, the researchers wrote that the control of fire by humans involves the acquisition of these three cognitive stages: conceptualization of fire, ability to control fire, and ability to start a fire.

According to Pruetz, the Fongoli chimpanzees have mastered the first stage, which is the prerequisite to the other two. But she doesn’t see them figuring out how to start a fire anytime soon—at least, not without help.

“I think they could learn. It might be difficult only because of their dexterity, since they’re less dexterous than us,” she adds. “But naturally, I can’t ever see them making fire. I think cognitively they are able to control it (stage 2).”

Yet they are very aware of fire and its power. In fact, Pruetz reports that the chimps have developed a unique “fire dance.”

“Chimps everywhere have what is called a ‘rain dance’—famed primatologist Jane Goodall coined that term—and it’s just a big male display (to show dominance),” she says. “Males display all the time for a number of different reasons, but when there’s a big thunderstorm approaching, they do this real exaggerated display—it’s almost like slow motion. And when I was with this one party of chimps, the dominant male did the same sort of thing, but it was towards the fire, so I call it the fire dance.

“The other interesting thing was that I heard a vocalization that I never heard before [the fire dance] and I’ve never heard since,” Pruetz explains.

She says the study provides insight into how the earliest human ancestors first developed the ability to control fire.

“If chimps can understand and predict the movement of fire, then maybe that’s the thing that allowed some of the very earliest bipedal apes [human ancestors] to eventually be able to control fire,” she notes.

Pruetz will be continuing her research in Senegal in spring 2010, which is sponsored, in part, by Iowa State University and the National Geographic Society.

Iowa State University news:

chat20 Comments



    Very possibly these animals are in the process of evolving into a higher order. It way be that humans evolved from similar primates that were distant relatives of the current species. The next thing to look for is when the chimps actually learn how to make fire and perhaps invent a wheel……….

  2. Rational_one

    It’s ridiculous to think the chimps are evolving into a higher order. They have always been very intelligent.

  3. Gayle

    I think it is more likely that these chimps have learned to deal with fire over time. This might be a primate cultural learning (most likely how we humans were able to adapt/ use/ create fire) rather than an instinctual sort of response to fire, which is how I interpreted this article. It would be interesting to put this hypothesis through lab testing…

  4. jim barter

    I don’t think it’s that ridiculous, all animals (including humans) are continuously evolving, there is no reason to think however that this is a new behaviour, just one that hasn’t been observed before.

    And it follows that although it may not be a new behaviour, there is no reason to assume that it won’t change, for better or worse, depending on evolutionary process.

  5. Katharine

    I would not be surprised if chimps were on their way down the path we’ve already taken. We’re animals too.

  6. HSA

    I would not be surprised either to see the evolution of these chimps progress forward.

  7. Mike Value

    Well they are biologically 98% just like us so its no wonder that they can recognize and use fire effectively after all it was their only means of light before electricity came along. Some could even argue that this is just another fact pointing towards evolution but who knows.

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  9. Lucas Evaluator

    “Very possibly these animals are in the process of evolving into a higher order.”

    Maybe the first comment is true, unfortunately humans apparently aren’t evolving… maybe a “Devolution”.
    Chimps is the New World Order!

  10. permatec

    Very interesting.Everybody should responsible to their wild

  11. Energy for Success

    Wild life is the big sector of our nature.Without wild we can’t imagine our nature.And everyman should responsible to their animals.

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    Very interesting article Mike, I enjoyed reading it!

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