Do chimps grieve?

May 24, 2016 • 12:30 pm

Over on the BBC website, there’s a piece and a video (click on screenshot below) that raises the provocative question of “Do chimps grieve?”  What you see in the 5-minute clip (apparently an excerpt from a 20-minute clip) is the reactions of groupmates to the death from pneumonia of a nine-year-old chimp, Thomas, in a reserve in Zambia. The chimps gather around the body, touch it, shriek, and even beat the body.

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Is this “grieving”? I have no idea, for that requires knowing what the chimps are actually feeling. I could claim, for instance that the chimps are freaked out that a previously animate companion is now without motion and behavior, and they don’t know what to do. That may mean they know that something has happened, but it doesn’t mean they’re mourning their companion, or have an understanding of death.

What’s most important is whether the chimps know that THEY are going to die: that what happened to Thomas will some day happen to them. That question is unanswerable for the moment, but I suspect they don’t. For if they did apprehend their mortality, we’d immediately see the rise of chimpanzee religions. (Only kidding!) Have a look at the BBC article, and the comments of the researchers, to see how they analyze this rarely witnessed event.

Here’s a YouTube video further explaining and analyzing what you see above:

h/t: Chris

25 thoughts on “Do chimps grieve?

  1. This will never be quote-mined or taken out of context, “What’s most important is whether the chimps know that THEY are going to die: that what happened to Thomas will some day happen to them. That question is unanswerable for the moment, but I suspect they don’t. For if they did apprehend their mortality, we’d immediately see the rise of chimpanzee religions.” 😉

  2. My now deceased dog once really really freaked out at the sight of a life-size realistically carved plastic duck in a pond that from 20 yards away could be easily mistaken for a real duck. It was just something that looked like other animate objects that was not. He certainly was not mourning the duck’s death.

    The notion that chimps have a prototype of religion has been explored by anthropologist Barbara King ( ) in her book “Evolving God”, and she has a new book out called “How Animals Grieve”.

    King appears to be an atheist in this article that she wrote
    but in her book “Evolving God” she seems quite unimpressed with Dan Dennett’s
    “Breaking the Spell”.


    (As I noted in an earlier post on this site on Carole King, Barbara King has a picture of herself with a cat in which she is a dead ringer for the cover of “Tapestry” but as Carole King’s real surname is Klein they are unrelated.)

  3. Of course chimpanzees do not know that they will eventually die. Otherwise they would be moving to Florida in larger numbers.

  4. “For if they did apprehend their mortality, we’d immediately see the rise of chimpanzee religions. (Only kidding!)”

    Don’t some claim chimps already got religion (accumulative stone throwing?)

    1. Maybe it promotes inter-group bonding / cooperation in some way? Maybe it is merely a side effect of other characteristics that were selected for (i.e. that increased fitness) but that is itself neutral?

    2. When you display symptoms of physical illness or injury, your friends and family rally round to care for you, because they know you’ll do the same for them some day (and in the case of family because you share some of their genes).

      Why shouldn’t the same be true when your ability to function is impaired by grief, depression, or other emotional distress? You display the symptoms as a signal that you’re in need of care, with the implied promise of reciprocation down the road.

    3. Sounds plausible. On the other hand I have read that animals often disguise pain. Presumably it depends on whether the animal lives in social groups.

    4. Of course it doesn’t need to be good for something; it shouldn’t hinder reproduction too much.

      To me it seems a byproduct of ingroup-bonding.

  5. In my view, the question of whether chimps grieve hinges on whether they live entirely in the moment, or are capable of long-term planning. For humans, a large part of grieving is the realization that one’s life henceforth will be much different without one’s close companion. For us this in an ongoing process, with each day bringing new reminders that this is how it’s going to be from now on.

    To the extent that chimps can conceptualize the continuing absence of a friend in the future, their grief will resemble ours. If that’s beyond their ability to imagine, then I think their sense of loss will be much different than what we call grief.

  6. Many years ago, there were photos and an article in a magazine about the death of an elephant. The herd gathered around, touched her with their trunks and tried to lift her up. One of the males attempted to have sex with her. That should have brought her back, if anything could, right?! I don’t think we can ascribe grief to these behaviors, but it’s obvious that they knew something is drastically wrong.

    Grief is displayed in many different ways by humans. Wailing is customary for some, but not all.

  7. Jane Goodall gave a compelling account of a mother chimp grieving the death of her baby in “The Shadow of Man”, which was one of those turning-point books for me.

    1. I think a mother’s reaction to the death of its baby, across a wide range of species, is more understandable from an evolutionary perspective than an adult’s reaction to the death of a group-mate – but I’m still not sure we can call it grieving.
      The behaviour of the chimps in this video-clip could indicate a mixture of fear and confusion rather than sadness or grieving – how could we know?
      And how would we ever be certain we’ve eliminated anthropomorphic projections on to the behaviour of other animals, particularly our ape cousins?
      Chris G.

  8. One of the chimps slapped the corpse and immediately run away. That’s one naughty chimp, I would say.

  9. They must have come across Death many times, but whether they are aware what this means is moot, they are probably just wondering why their companion doesn’t get up or move, but whether they relate that to something awaiting them is questionable.

  10. As language users we often think of our concepts mediated through language. Without language it is hard to individuate concepts …

    So I’d say it is very likely that the chimpanzees are reacting to death, but a lot more work is needed to see what that involves.

    Since some chimpanzees *do* use tools, even seeking out materials for them, that suggests *some* forwardlooking in *some* domains. Can that be transposed to the social? I don’t know.

  11. Despite occasional claims like this, there is no evidence chimps employ more than rudimentary perceptual categories in their cognition. There is a great deal of evidence, mainly from the published work of Dan Povinelli that chimpanzees are incapable of the even the most rudimentary of unobservable concepts of weight, support, containment and the like, much less any abstract concepts such as death. For an enlightening view, check out the Jokro “Death of Young Chimpanzee” video on Youtube here: The narration is somewhat anthropomorphic, but you can watch a mother chimp carry around her dead, rotting and desiccated infant for days, seemingly clueless to the fact it is deceased. When her nurturing hormones subside and she comes back into estrus, she finally drops the infant. You will also see that while the infant is alive and mortally ill, even when it keels over, the mother and other chimps in the troop appear quite indifferent. There are a number of videos showing chimps, sniffing, prodding, kicking an immobile corpse and running off shrieking. There is no evidence of a concept of death, only fear,confusion or curiosity to an immobile body. We are cautioned to assume the psychology of chimps or other animals is anything like the conceptually rich consciousness we entertain.

    1. I agree that one should be cautious.

      But the examples of lack of concepts are all “folk physics”. Maybe a social creature in a relatively stable environment doesn’t need those as much as social ones?

  12. True, Povinellis work is mostly physics concepts, but not all, he has some interesting work on chimps lack of concept of “seeing” as well. Michael Tomasello’s Leipzig group has gone to great lengths to prove even the most rudimentary theory of mind aspects in chimps and the results are controversial. The standard view is that human cognition is the result of social interactions. Big brains and big groups, however is correlational at best. Chimps have Machiavellian levels of social intrigue and they are at it whenever they are not feeding or sleeping, yet have developed nothing like human conceptual abilities in any domain. A 3 yr. child leaves an adult chimp cognitively in the dust. Young children understand the physical concepts, “seeing,” spatial relations and soon ToM. There is no evidence for any abstract conceptual ability such as life or death in chimps. The interpretation of movies like this seem to be anthropomorphism at its worst.

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