In the early 1960s, scientists started to follow Jane Goodall into the east African forest to study apes in the wild. As research findings accumulated it became evident that chimpanzees left to pursue their own lives had a lot to teach us about what it means to be human. Craig Stanford, a professor of biological sciences and anthropology at the University of Southern California, has dedicated his career — which began with Goodall in the Gombe region of Africa — researching chimps, documenting their habits, and pondering the nature of this connection.
His forthcoming book, The New Chimpanzee: A Twenty-First-Century Portrait of Our Closest Kin, offers deeply informed (and admirably accessible) insight into what chimps can tell us about a compendium of human pursuits, ranging from sex, politics, violence, and family to self-care, alpha maleness, social cooperation, and status. But the one area where the book especially shines is on the topic that's been the main focus of Stanford's work for decades: hunting and eating meat.
It was long thought that chimpanzees were vegan. When Goodall, in the early 1960s, reported a supposedly herbivore chimp devouring a baby bushpig, her colleagues reacted with skepticism. Many of them flat out claimed that she was wrong. "Not until hunting was seen in numerous other forests," Stanford writes, "did the entire scientific community accept that meat eating is a core aspect of chimpanzee behavior." Stanford now considers hunting "one of the cultural traditions intrinsic to chimpanzee life." And chimps, he reiterates, are omnivores in the same way humans are.
Studying the behavior of another species necessarily breeds disagreement among experts, but a few facts about hunting and meat consumption among chimps are beyond dispute. Most notably, the process is unavoidably violent. Chimps hunt and kill their favorite meal — red colobus monkeys — without weaponry. As a result, they kill, shred, and dismember — not always in that order — with bare hands. Stanford says they sometimes begin eating the monkey while it's still alive. Furthermore, because red colobus monkeys really don't defend themselves especially well — "to be honest, monkeys are not very good at defense strategies," Stanford says — the hunt is almost always a horrific chest-thumping rout.
Small but poignant incidents stand out. Stanford recalls a hunt where he "once watched Prof, an older adult male, pursue a female colobus from treetop to treetop." When Prof caught the monkey, "her body was quaking." With premoral indifference, "Prof extended his hand to her belly, where a baby colobus was clinging to its terrified mother's torso." As the mother resigned herself to defeat, "Prof took the tiny creature and killed it with a bite to the skull, then departed, leaving the mother monkey to live another day." This form of exploitation can be hard for researchers to witness. Stanford admits "dreading the awful outcome for the monkeys."
When I spoke to Stanford by phone, he discussed his own sense of safety in an atmosphere that, while generally peaceful, was marked by occasional flashes of violence. Mostly he felt at ease among his subjects, but he did note that one chimp, a famous alpha male and expert hunter named Frodo (who died in 2013), would occasionally put him and his fellow researchers on edge.
How does an adult male chimp intimidate an adult male human? "He was a bully," Stanford says. "And he was a bully to me. I was never afraid of him biting me or being literally attacked, but he would charge at you and slap you with his hands and feet and maybe drag you." Stanford's strategy was to grab a tree and avoid being dragged while waiting for the dominance display to end. He and his colleagues would later discuss what Frodo may have intended by these gestures. There was, of course, no way to tell, but Stanford, laughing a little, wonders, "does he look at us like we're the lowest ranking chimps?"
When the hunt — which is almost always successful for chimps — ends, another undeniable fact of chimp existence begins: the politics of distributing the spoils. In chimpanzee cultures (and, yes, there are a diversity of them), meat is not murder; it's power. Stanford notes that chimps rarely scavenge to consume meat from carcasses, a telling decision highlighting how "meat eating has much to do with the social and political aspects of the hunt and not simply the consumption of nutrients and calories."
Jane Goodall attends the 55th New York Film Festival | (Theo Warge/Courtesy Pacific Standard)
The politics after the hunt can be as ritualistic as the power moves at a Senate hearing. Stanford explains how the dominant male chimp acquisitions the dead monkeys killed by inferior hunters and "shares it in very nepotistic, strategic, and manipulative ways." He says that the alpha male will "share it preferentially with male allies, with females he is close to, and females he wants to mate with." The authority invested in controlling meat is significant enough to explain why chimps' "eagerness to eat meat outweighs any fear of being bitten by their prey." It also explains why chimps will go hunting even when supplies of fruits are at a premium. Doing so fosters what Stanford calls "Machiavellian behavior," a claim that becomes hard to dispute in light of evidence showing that one of the strongest motivations for chimps to initiate a hunt is "the presence of one or more females with sexual swellings in the hunting party." Meat and sex are thereby closely connected.
A final element of a chimp's omnivorous diet that seems beyond question is the impact of the hunt on male relationships. Males comprise around 90 percent of a hunting party. "Male bonding and male efforts to rise in rank by currying favor with the right higher up" were integral to the hunt, an event that was not exactly planned so much as anticipated by looking for fruit in prime hunting areas while perhaps hoping to encounter some monkeys. The chimps have "individual life histories and personas," and maleness or femaleness appears to shape those personal narratives. As other scholars have shown, "male bonds were closely connected to the frequency of hunting." A male's wish to cooperate and share with a male ally "might be a force behind the desire to hunt."
Naturally, much of this information — as so much else in The New Chimpanzee — will ring familiar. The political and social significance of meat, the bonding of the hunt and the power involved in distributing the spoils, and maybe even the thrill of the violence involved (the human version being much more sanitized, but still...) all of these factors make sense in light of Stanford's claim that "hunting and meat sharing provide us with key clues about the seeds of our diet, and our intellect."
How to extrapolate from it and make sense of who we are today is a more contested endeavor. You often hear contemporary advocates for meat-eating draw on this research to argue that humans were "meant to eat meat." Others look at the same evidence and argue that, given that chimps can get their essential nutrients without meat — and because meat makes only 1 to 3 percent of a chimp's diet — that we, in fact, do not need to eat meat. So, given the suffering involved, we shouldn't. These kinds of debates can go in circles forever and, wisely, Stanford avoids them.
But he does, in our conversation, note that (self-consciously using a dating trope) when a man takes a romantic partner to a fancy and expensive steakhouse on a first date the decision to do so is about more than the steak. He also reiterates how "the interesting thing about the chimp diet is that they do have this absolute lust for meat." As happens so often in this thought-provoking book, there seems to be a clear connection between today's chimp behavior and that of many human societies. How the dots will line up is anyone's guess, but it will be exciting to watch.
This story originally appeared as This absolute lust for meat on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.