An anthropologist among the primatologists - Alan Barnard
Chimpanzee socio-ecology - Emily Bethell
Chimpanzee pant-hoots - Hugh Notman
An anthropologist among the primatologists
by Alan Barnard
Alan Barnard is a social anthropologist at Edinburgh University. His main interest is in hunter-gatherers with special reference to kinship. He writes here about the relationship between primatology and social anthropology. - V.R.
In July-August 1996, my wife and I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Budongo at Vernon Reynolds' invitation. My student, Harriet Bennett, was engaged in intensive fieldwork with the chimps, with the unusual idea of doing her anthropology dissertation on these creatures. I had long wanted to see chimps in the wild myself, and Harriet's project along with Vernon's invitation gave me the chance I was waiting for. The emergence of this newsletter now gives me the chance to share some thoughts on the experience and on the relation between anthropology and primatology.
Intertwined threads of interest
Many anthropologists since the 1960s have repeated the statement that human hunter-gatherers today are not like Palaeolithic Man, much less like wild chimpanzees. Since that time there has been much discussion of chimpanzee / human-forager parallels. Richard Lee, for example, was a student of Harvard primatologist lrven DeVore and went with DeVore to the Kalahari to do his first fieldwork. Furthermore, as Lee and DeVore said in the preface to Man the Hunter 'We cannot avoid the suspicion that many of us were led to live and work among hunters because of a feeling that the human condition was likely to be more clearly drawn here than among other kinds of societies.' Of course no-one would claim that the human condition would be more likely to be clearly drawn among chimps than among humans; nevertheless, as comparison is the essence of anthropology, it is essential to study the 'other' in order to understand the 'self'. Therefore, in order to understand the human species, we need to focus on comparisons between ourselves and our nearest contemporaries outside our species, the chimpanzees.
We all have both specific and general interests. Social anthropology has always wavered between documenting the specific ethnographically and addressing the general questions: what is culture, what is human society? Do all societies have the same economic structures, or are economies culturally configured? Or, what is the nature of kinship? Is the incest taboo the ultimate definition of culture, as Levi-Strauss once said -- because it is at the same time both universal and particular? He meant that each human society (but no non-human society) has an incest taboo, and therefore that this taboo is universal among humans. Yet being defined in very specific and diverse ways within different cultures, it is cultural. In fact, the form of incest taboo (e.g., by genealogical distance, by positive as well as negative rules regarding sexual access and marriage) varies enormously.
To complete the classic four areas of functionalist anthropology, we have, in addition to economics and kinship: religion and politics. Religion also has a claim to universality among the human species, but it is something presumably (except in the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs) not found among other primates. Politics may be the odd one out here, as it clearly has great interest among those who work with chimpanzees (famously, Frans de Waal). I might add one further area, perhaps best seen as a part of economics but nevertheless set apart form its social aspects: material culture. This is an area of considerable overlap between social anthropology, primatology, and for that matter palaeontology and archaeology. As Bill McGrew (among others) has shown, culture, especially in the
form of the production of tools, is not only a human asset. Chimps have it too.
This relates to another general area of anthropology that has been played up especially in the domain of kinship. Robin Fox, in a 1975 paper, tells us that human 'kinship' is an outgrowth of primate 'kin' relations. He was careful not to use the word 'kinship' for primates for fear of implying too much, but the general significance is that slow evolutionary development from primate to human is an attribute of human society. His gradualist approach is compatible with general theories of the family as the basis of society, as propagated, for example, by the nineteenth-century jurist Sir Henry Maine. It is incompatible, though, with the older notion of the 'social contract' of Hobbes, Rousseau and so forth, an idea whose modern proponents include Levi-Strauss and more recently Chris Knight - with their views of different kinds of human 'revolutions' involving 'symbolic culture', at the root of what we now think of as modern man. Of course these developments occurred long after the separation of chimps from humans. Culture remains in this broad theoretical perspective meaningful for the revolutionist, as chimps are the closest living examples we have to pre-symbolic humanity, that is, humanity prior to the postulated symbolic revolution which took place between sixty and a hundred thousand years ago.
Observing primatologists in the field
All that is really background for my thoughts on observing chimps and observing primatologists in the field. Let me take the latter first.
A Japanese anthropologist and primatologist tells me that his methodology in the two fields is much the same, but that human foragers are more fun to be with because he can talk with them! A German ethologist once confided a similar story, and the premise of human ethology is precisely that methods devised for the study of animals can be used in the study of humans too. This begs the question of whether the methodological assumptions could be reversed. Why should we not study chimps in the same way that we (social anthropologists) study humans? That was the underlying premise of my reflections on observations of the researchers at Budongo.
One thing that struck me was the relatively formal methodology used by primatologists, as compared to that employed in social anthropological studies of human populations. Of course, many anthropologists do use quite sophisticated quantitative methods, but most rely much more on intuition, and are either ignorant or very sceptical (or both) of statistical methods. It seems to me that intuition, although it is there with those who design questionnaires, is implicit in predicting which way chimps will go, what they are up to, and perhaps even even how they think, nevertheless takes a back seat in primatology.
A second factor is intensity of coverage. While some anthropologists involved in human hunter-gatherer studies have tried 'follows' as in primatology, the majority do not. James Woodburn, for instance, once followed an elderly Hadza woman in Tanzania for two weeks -- getting up before she did, going to bed after she did; and it exhausted him. Richard Lee in his famous 'input-output' analysis of what people eat and what work they do, tried to make observations of both activities and calorie intake for an entire Ju/'hoan (!Kung) band, non-stop over an eleven day period in 1964. Researchers among chimps do this kind of work all the time. It is the basis of their record. The basis of the anthropological record tends to be much more on special events, such as rituals, and on results of question-and-answer sessions, for example, in order to understand ideology and the nature of indigenous knowledge.
Another thing that struck me was the teamwork basis of fieldwork at Budongo. Several researchers would chase after or follow together. Even though they knew where the chimps were likely to be, and even though they focused on different chimpanzee individuals, they did their work as a group. The same is true of palaeontologists and archaeologists. Most social anthropologists are not used to this. In social anthropology the essence of fieldwork is one anthropologist alone (or perhaps one anthropologist and his or her family) working with one group of subjects.
Fourthly, a related difference, researchers with chimpanzees do not as a rule live with the chimps, although there may be exceptions: Jane Goodall at Gombe may have come close to this, and I would also except laboratory studies of chimps and language. Anthropologists tend to live as much as they can both with and like their subjects. However, there is in fact a hidden similarity here: both researchers at stations like Budongo and social anthropologists in the field work with their groups in what we might call the groups' 'natural' surroundings. But they do it differently: the one with methods based heavily on observation with some intuition, and the other based on intuition, interaction (especially linguistic), and observation.
The 'bread and butter' of both disciplines - social anthropology almost as much as primate studies - is in the record of the group. Generalisation is from the individual to the level of group, and perhaps (to some extent) in the case of chimps, to generalisation for the species as a whole. Questions which confront both disciplines simultaneously also tend to be at the level of the species, and they tend to be the grander questions. One basic area of discussion, common in Western discourse from time to time ever since Aristotle, is the notion of the human species as being at once both solitary and gregarious -- an idea picked up by seventeenth and particularly the eighteenth century writers on human and 'Ape' society. These fundamentals remain with us. Chimpanzee studies can help anthropologists, but only if they want to indulge in this very grand level of social theory.
The problem is that anthropological theory has narrowed itself to particular and very specialised concerns. There is also the problem that the grander social theorists that anthropologists think about are characters like Marx, Durkheim and Weber, rather than lesser-known figures who had something relevant to say on the issue, or indeed more temporally-distant figures. I am thinking in the last instance of seventeenth-century precursors of social anthropology, such as Grotius, Pufendorf, Hobbes, and Locke, as well as some of the precursors of biological anthropology, notably Edward Tyson and Johan Friedrich Blumenbach.
It is worth recalling that Tyson's 1699 description of his dissection of a chimpanzee is really a comparative treatise on the anatomy of monkeys and humans (between which his 'Pygmie' or chimp serves as a missing link). And appended to this anatomical treatise is an essay suggesting that reports of 'Pygmies', 'Satyrs', etc., are all misdescriptions of monkeys or 'Apes' (baboons). Whereas belief in human ‘Giants' was common among seventeenth and eighteenth-century intellectuals, there was a growing disbelief even in the possibility of human 'Pygmies' - thus consigned to the status of either myth or missing link.
It is also worth noting that Blumenbach's interest in the boundary between humans and others, typically for eighteenth-century intellectuals, included the study of feral children; but unlike some of his contemporaries he regarded the 'human' (feral or civilised) as fundamentally different from what he calls the 'simian'.
Therefore, one way that I can see that primatologists can help anthropologists, and indeed anthropologists can help primatologists, is to share our conjectures and rekindle our dying flame of interest in the grander issues of human and animal relations. This interest was there at the beginning of our disciplines, and undoubtedly it was there in many of us when we began our university careers. In other words, I think both disciplines would benefit from some collective reflection on older, grander, and altogether simpler issues of the kind that led us to look at anthropology or primatology in the first place -- fascination with the richness of the human species, fascination with the diversity of cultures, and what it is to be human or to be nearly human. The time may be right for the nineteenth and twentieth-century notion that humans are apes to give way again to the notion, well-known in the eighteenth century, that apes are (like) humans -- at least enough like humans to deserve both anthropological methodoogy and, more importantly, human compassion. The latter, I am acutely aware, is already present among all the researchers I know who have worked at Budongo.
Observing chimps in the field
So what of the chimps as objects of research? Unfortunately, I was not present at Budongo at a time of intense social activity among them, or at a time when they were on the ground for very long. However, I spent several days closely observing them with binoculars, talking with Budongo's expert staff, both Ugandan and foreign, and applying my anthropological background to the understanding of these fascinating creatures. It may sound grand, but I was looking for the roots of human behaviour, and at the same time, for ways in which chimps are different from humans.
My interest in hunter-gatherer studies poses one fundamental question which is worth addressing here. Are chimps in any sense more like hunter-gatherers than they are like other human beings? The answer is both 'no' and 'yes'. 'No', because the possession of very high intelligence, the richness of linguistic expression, and the sophistication of symbolic thought, are attributes of all humans. There is no difference whatsoever here between hunter-gatherers and any other human beings. However, the answer must be 'yes' in certain other regards. Hunter-gatherer group sizes and structures, for example, are similar to those of non-human primates. Notwithstanding the notion propagated by some (e.g., B.J. Williams or Robin Dunbar) that there are universals of human group size and association, chimp groups do look more like hunter-gatherer bands than they do like agricultural villages or industrial cities. Political relations are another matter. Among the chimps, one senses Westminster politics more than the consensus politics of hunter-gatherer bands!
My own specialisations within hunter-gatherer studies are in kinship and settlement patterns. While 'settlement' is not quite the right word to describe what we observe among chimps, nevertheless there are similarities in seasonal activity, daily wanderings in search of food and water, hunting activities on the part of males, interaction with other groups, etc. Kinship is different. Sexual advances, birth and nurturing, and relations between infants and parents and among siblings, are all aspects of kinship. Of course, chimps live in 'one-parent families', and they don't classify their distant kin with culture-specific appellations or remember their ancestors. Yet I was struck by the vividness of kin relations I observed. Kin relations among chimps have a kind of 'purity', stripped as they are of the cultural complexities of Bushman or Australian Aboriginal kinship systems, for example. Indeed, as with politics, it is Western kinship which comes to mind on the comparative front, as much as hunter-gatherer kinship. Hunter-gatherers tend to classify the entire social sphere as belonging to categories of kin. For them, genealogical distance takes second place to kinship category; and in some hunting-and-gathering societies, kin categorisation is associated with the classification of the land and the cosmos. Britons, Ugandans, Japanese, etc., have none of this. Perhaps, as Levi-Strauss once said, early human and modern hunter-gatherer societies alike produced minds of the calibre of Plato and Einstein, but these hunter-gatherer 'Platos' and 'Einsteins' were preoccupied with kinship. From a hunter-gatherer point of view, agricultural and industrialised peoples have partly returned to the simplicity of chimpanzee kinship, leaving their great minds to ponder other problems.
That said, there may be things we can compare by observation between human hunter-gatherers, non-hunter-gatherers, and chimps: time spent with the young, grooming behaviour, learning behaviour, sibling rivalry, and family and group variations in all of these. Some of the findings of primatologists may be useful to anthropologists in looking for human universals. Likewise, some of the classic findings and questions in the anthropology of kinship may be useful to primatologists. For example, relations between grandparents and grandchildren are in a great many societies (but less so those which anthropologists tend to come from) ones of joking and licence, whereas parent-child relations are stricter. Are there parallels among chimpanzees? What of other classics of anthropological kinship study: lineage theory, alliance theory, uncle-nephew relations, mother-in-law avoidance? In Primate Behaviour, Quiatt and Reynolds have pioneered the application of anthropological models of kinship to primate data, but I can't help but feeling there is room for much more dialogue -- not just in papers and conferences, but in the field at research stations like Budongo.
I look forward to this dialogue, which I am certain will come, as well as to more formal collaborative efforts which must undoubtedly depend at least as much on shared questions as on agreed methodologies. All in all, the questions are what really count. What are we trying to find out, and why?
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by Emily Bethell
Emily Bethell, now working in London, mapped the south east extension of the trail system which has since been put on the project computer. Thanks Emily! - V.R.
I spent about 10 weeks in Budongo over the summer of '97 carrying out research on vigilance in the chimpanzees with James Kakura and mapping that ever-expanding trail system. The project formed my 3rd year dissertation at University College, London which I worked on under the supervision of Dr Jeremy Field (UCL) and Guy Cowlishaw (Zoological Institute, London).
The hardest part was getting there! After writing letters and emails to just about every primate-related centre going I was finally pointed in the direction of Professor Reynolds and the Budongo Forest Project. Having found someone who would consider taking on a lowly undergraduate (and they are few and far between!) I was only too happy to offer my services mapping, cutting or tagging whichever corners of the trail system were left to be done, and so I was in.
The invite for contributions asked what I tried to achieve, did achieve and failed to achieve. Well, the answers are: everything, a lot less than everything, and all the bits in between.
Having realised that you just can't record everything I narrowed down my objectives and got stuck in. I collected data for about 6-7 weeks and carried out mapping of the trail system for the rest of the time (as well as fitting in that obligatory trip to Murchisson Falls!).
My work focused on vigilance patterns as a means of determining sex-specific reproductive strategies and I found interesting patterns between the sexes as well as between individuals of different rank.
Males showed differences in their vigilance patterns, especially between the alpha-male and all other males, whilst female vigilance differed between adults and subadults.
Low ranks spent more time looking at higher ranking individuals than vice versa in both males and females, supporting the view that lower ranks are at greater risk of attack from conspecifics. The alpha male was observed to spend more time looking at (and communicating with) females, and the adult females were seen to spend a greater proportion of their time looking at food than did the subadult females.
For a short time it seemed that no infant was safe and there was a spate of observations concerning unidentified infants which were either found dead or seen to disappear as suddenly as they had appeared in the first place. Whether or not this heightened tensions among mothers in the population I cannot say, but I did find a clear trend between female rankage and levels of attention paid to offspring as they foraged or played away from their mothers. Lower ranking/younger mothers were certainly more worried about their little ones than were older and more dominant members.
I also looked at the effects of observer presence on the focal animal as a measure of perceived predation risk. Lower ranking, smaller individuals of both sexes were more wary of the observer than their more dominant counterparts and directed more attention our way accordingly.
A clear difference in the strategies which each sex adopted to monitor our presence was seen. Males tended not to move away when we approached, but would direct higher levels of vigilance towards us whereas females would move away, maintaining a greater distance between us and themselves, paying less attention to our presence.
My time in Budongo was a real eye-opener into the world of research and was a wonderful experience. I learnt a lot on both a practical and personal basis and I will certainly never forget the chimps of Budongo or the people I met there.
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by Hugh Notman
Hugh Notman is coming back for more pant-hoots in 1999. Let us know what the chimps are saying, Hugh! - V.R.
I was at Budongo in 1996 during July and August collecting data for my Masters thesis at Oxford. My topic concerned chimpanzee pant-hoot vocalisations and I spent my entire time in the forest following the animals with a tape recorder trying to capture any and all their pant-hoots.
My greatest obstacle to successful data collection was first and foremost lack of time. The chimpanzees were not as vociferous as I had anticipated, and I therefore found I could not collect a large enough sample of calls in the time allotted. Also, because of their long periods of silence, it was difficult to know when they would call, and I would often miss segments as they had finished by the time I had started recording.
All in all, though, I did get enough data for a preliminary analysis, and I had a blast doing it. My thanks go especially to my tracker, Tinka John, for his companionship during the long waits for pant-hoots. Hope to see you again when I come back for round two.
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