Chimps and the Zen of Falling Water

  • 2016-01-14
  • Nautilus

There is a waterfall in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park. Maybe 12 feet high, it’s fairly modestly sized, though even a modest waterfall is quite a magical thing. And it’s here that chimpanzees come to dance.

You can watch a video online, narrated by the great primatologist Jane Goodall, who, as with so many chimpanzee behaviors, was the first to observe these rituals. It’s quite a show: An adult male approaches via the riverbed with a slow, rhythmic gait, so unlike yet like our own. He throws rocks and tree branches into the falls, then catches a vine and swings above them. Finally he sits on a rock in the stream, head resting on forearms, and watches the water go by.

These performances happen several times each year, but they do not have any obvious utilitarian purpose, even as social displays; though groups of chimps sometimes participate, often it’s just a solitary individual. Given how easily a chimp might slip on the rocks, it’s quite risky. Chimps also can’t swim, and typically avoid running water. Which raises the question: What are these chimps thinking?

“I can’t help feeling that this waterfall display, or dance, is perhaps triggered by feelings of awe and wonder,” says Goodall in the video. “The chimpanzee brain is similar to ours. They have emotions that are clearly similar to those that we call happiness and sadness and fear and despair and so forth. So why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind at spirituality? Which is, really, being amazed at things outside yourself.”

In which case: spiritual chimps.

It’s been a hard notion for some to accept. Theologian Christopher Fisher argued Goodall was anthropomorphizing her subjects—interpreting an animal’s behavior in inappropriately human-centered terms—and that only humans can be spiritual. While Fisher’s refutation could just as easily be dismissed as yet another example of anthropocentrism, assuming that what’s important to humans is also what’s singular about us, he raises a fair point: We don’t know what’s happening in a rain-dancing chimp’s mind.