Endorsements

“The Advanced Apes provides bite-sized lessons on topics connected to evolutionary anthropology that are both informative and entertaining. It is sure to stimulate discussion!” – Dr. Joyce Parga (Professor of Anthropology at University of Toronto)

“The Advanced Apes website and blog provides strong, thoughtful and honest insight into the world of evolutionary biology, with a voice that all can understand and appreciate. ROM Biodiversity is a big fan of Cadell and his work, and we look forward to collaborating in the future.” – Dave Ireland (Managing Director, ROM Biodiversity)

“The Advanced Apes is a great source for insight into the ideas and implications behind what’s happening in contemporary science.” – Mark Katakowski (Creator of Hubski) “I used the “Are Chimpanzees Cultural” video in my biological anthropology classes as an introduction to the discussion of culture and primates. “Love the animation” was the resounding response from students. What sets this video apart is the animation supports a clear message about how scientists define and determine culture in non-human primates. These definitions and the behavioral examples were a great springboard for the ensuing discussion.” – Cynthia Bradbury (Professor of Anthropology at Boise State University)

“What I like about The Advanced Apes is that it takes scholarly research and makes it accessible to the general public. They cover topics from the origins of the universe to chimpanzee culture and present them in a dynamic and engaging way. I share their posts, blogs, and podcasts with my Anthropology students on a regular basis.” – Dr. Tracy Prowse (Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University)

“The Advanced Apes shows the best kind of thinking: focused but with a cross-disciplinary perspective, concrete but with an eye on long history. Cadell’s intelligent engagement and enthusiasm make this a pleasure to read, listen to and watch.” – Matthew Pettit (Anthropology PhD Candidate at University of Toronto)

“The Advanced Apes is an in-depth science blog which tackles a vast range of subjects from evolutionary anthropology to space technology; genetics; the environment and my personal favourite – non-human primates. TAA not only informs readers through the written word but also via social media, and more recently podcasting involving other science contributors. It aims to communicate difficult and complex issues into a more accessible format for lay readers as well as those already aware of scientific matters at large. It’s a great platform for visitors who want to join the debate and have their voices heard.” – Asha Tanna (Science Reporter for Channel4 News)

“Cadell Last’s articles are well-researched, timely, thought-provoking, and insightful. Through his websites, Cadell is making an invaluable contribution to the advancement of education and to the popularization of science, ensuring that scientific writing is more accessible to a wider audience of people. In a technological era dominated by so many challenging issues, this is truly a laudable achievement. The more that people participate in this worldwide discussion, the sooner we will be able to craft solutions for a better future.” – Susan Ahn (Co-founder at The People Project)

“Cadell engages readers through thought-provoking and insightful analyses of the significance of our evolutionary connections with great ape species, and is helping to strengthen understanding and appreciation around the severity of the plight of our closest living relatives.” – Cari Bourrie (Jane Goodall Institute of Canada)

A ‘Great’ Crisis

Change is in you

I have been thinking a great deal about happiness and how we can best study the happiness of our species.  That is why a recent study on great ape mood caught my eye.  I found it quite insightful.  The study was led by psychologist Alexander Weiss, who investigated patterns of well-being in two great ape species: chimpanzees and orangutans (Coles, 2012).  In this study, Weiss and his colleagues wanted to understand if our closest relatives share the same general life pattern of well-being that humans seem to possess.  Social scientists have established that humans experience a U-shaped pattern of well-being.  This means that as a species we tend to experience greatest mental health in youth, become far less happy throughout midlife, and then become happier again in old age (Weiss et al., 2012).  This seems to be a general pattern regardless of various socio-cultural and economic factors.  The study by…

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The Advanced Apes Podcast with Dr. Jonathan Marks

The Advanced Apes Podcast with Dr. Jonathan Marks

For the past few years, biological anthropologist Dr. Jonathan Marks has been a tremendous influence to me academically.  I love his books What It Means To Be 98% Chimpanzee, and Why I Am Not A Scientist.  Last week I had a chance to interview him for a The Advanced Apes Podcast.  For about an hour we discussed popular science, human evolution, and primatology. If you are interested you can check it out on theadvancedapes.com.

Are Chimpanzees Cultural?

For the past two months I, along with my two friends Alicia Herbert and Drew Hewitt, have been working on launching a new YouTube channel. We want this channel to be educational and focus on evolutionary and environmental science. Our first video is on chimpanzee culture. If you have any thoughts or comments, I would love to hear them.

Change is in you

I recently watched a BBC documentary about the Congo. It was part of a larger documentary series on Africa narrated by David Attenborough that I highly recommend. Whenever I watch BBC nature documentaries I feel like I learn something new each time. But while I was watching Congo, one scene in particular caught my attention. It was a scene on “chimpanzee fire.” Immediately my curiosity piqued. In the scene, a camera panned across a dark forest floor, and within moments it started coming to life with a green glow.

Was it chimpanzee fire? Unfortunately, it was not. It was bioluminescent fungi that the local Congolese call “chimpanzee fire.” Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. Several animal, plant, and fungi species have adapted the ability to produce their own light, and it serves many important functions. I actually had a chance to learn a lot…

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“Chimpanzee Fire”

I recently watched a BBC documentary about the Congo. It was part of a larger documentary series on Africa narrated by David Attenborough that I highly recommend. Whenever I watch BBC nature documentaries I feel like I learn something new each time. But while I was watching Congo, one scene in particular caught my attention. It was a scene on “chimpanzee fire.” Immediately my curiosity piqued. In the scene, a camera panned across a dark forest floor, and within moments it started coming to life with a green glow.

Was it chimpanzee fire? Unfortunately, it was not. It was bioluminescent fungi that the local Congolese call “chimpanzee fire.” Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. Several animal, plant, and fungi species have adapted the ability to produce their own light, and it serves many important functions. I actually had a chance to learn a lot about bioluminescence at an amazing exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York over the winter break.

It is easy to see why the native Congolese would have started to call this bioluminescent fungi chimpanzee fire. Modern science has only started to understand how bioluminescence functions and evolves. And it is kind of counterintuitive to think of organisms that have the ability to produce their own light. In the early modern era or pre-modern era, I think I would have been far more convinced by the chimpanzee fire hypothesis.

But this little anecdote about chimpanzee fire from the Congo reminds us of something more interesting: people in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa likely realized chimpanzees were behaviourally similar to humans for tens of thousands of years. Positing that chimpanzees had the ability to ignite fire across the forest floor is laden with symbolic meaning about our connection with them. And it is not hard to see why they would have attributed the glow to chimpanzees. In fact the name chimpanzee is derived from Tshiluba (a Congoloese language), and translates roughly as ‘mockman.’ This further supports the idea that we didn’t necessarily need modern science to reason that chimpanzees were human-like. Just like the Ancient Greek philosophers didn’t need telescopes to reason that the stars could be just like our Sun, only further away.

But let’s turn our attention back to fire. Sure the bioluminescent fungi were not chimpanzee fire, but can any populations of chimpanzee control and use fire? After all, most behavioural differences between chimpanzees and humans are really best thought of as gradient differences. Do any chimpanzees gather around a little campfire for warmth? Or light a torch to get through the forest at night?

Recent research at Fongoli in Senegal has revealed some interesting findings. Populations of chimpanzees at Fongoli behave a lot differently than many other populations studied to date. They are the only non-human organisms on the planet known to hunt other animals with weapons. They also periodically live in caves and travel at night. And unlike most other chimpanzee populations, they seem to have developed a fondness for water. But do they use and control fire?

Primatologist Jill Pruetz claims that the Fongoli chimps are confronted with fire more than other chimpanzee populations. They live in a savanna-mosaic environment and as a result wild fires spread more frequently than in the habitats of other chimpanzee populations. When confronted with these fires they seem to be able to “predict the movement.” (Pruetz & LaDuke, 2009). Pruetz says that in such situations she chooses to follow the chimpanzees rather than find her own path out of the woodland.

Despite this, no Fongoli chimp, or any other chimp, has ever been observed to control and use fire. That appears to be an ability acquired after our split with chimpanzees and bonobos. However, this leads to an interesting question: when did we start using fire? And what benefits did using fire have?

The question is harder to answer that it seems. The beginnings of most distinctively human behaviours leave little-to-no trace in the archaeological record. When it comes to understanding the origin of things like language or tool construction, theory has less testable evidence than would be ideal. In the case of fire, traces of fire use are easily and quickly destroyed by wind and rain, so acquiring direct evidence of early campsites may be impossible. That being said, we have uncovered some answers regarding the origin of the control and use of fire. This evidence is indirect, but reliable.

Paleoanthropologists believe they have pushed the origin of fire control and use to approximately 1.7 million years ago. The evidence comes from Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, where stratified deposits have produced burned cryptocrystalline stones, charred-calcined bones, and traces of ash, which indicate repeated burning events (Beaumont, 2011).

These deposits are associated with the remains of Homo ergaster, the African sister species to Homo erectus. Evolutionary anthropologists have known for a while that Homo erectus controlled and used fire, but the deposits at Wonderwerk push back its origin by hundreds of thousands of years.

Researchers have hypothesized that Homo ergaster regularly constructed campfires as they would have had considerable protection benefits on the southern savannas against a formidable array of carnivores. From my own research on chimpanzee nesting patterns, I believe that fire may have been a necessary behavioural adaptation to successfully migrate into a terrestrial niche. If my hypothesis is accurate, we should expect the origin of fire to be pushed back several millions of years. Alas, we don’t have evidence for that… yet.

Either way, fire may have provided our ancestors with an even greater benefit than protection from predators: cooking. Fire allowed our ancestors to prepare and cook meals (Wrangham, 2009). British primatologist Richard Wrangham recently wrote an entire book on the origin of fire and how it changed our species. He posits that cooking increased food efficiency, which enabled larger brain growth. His hypothesis is largely supported by current theory and evidence. It is also interesting to note that modern humans are highly evolved for eating cooked food, and if not prepared properly, raw food can be lethally poisonous to our digestive tract.

As human-like as chimpanzees can be, they do not control and use fire in the wild (even though they can be taught by humans). The original discovery that fire can be controlled and used for our benefit may have been the product of one ancient genius, or it may have been stumbled upon several hundreds of times. It seems that we will never have precise knowledge of how it exactly happened. However, we do have important knowledge of where it was made, when it was made, and what species discovered it. Future research should help us better understand how this happened, and consequently, it will help us reconstruct our current story of how we became human.  And you can help make future primatological discoveries possible by helping the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada continue field research throughout AfricaThe next big discovery is only one field season away.

References

Beaumont, P.B.  2011.  The Edge: More on Fire-Making by about 1.7 Million Years Ago at Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.  Current Anthropology, 52: 585-595.    

Pruetz, J.D. & LaDuke, T.C.  2009.  Brief communication: Reaction to fire by savanna chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Fongoli, Senegal: Conceptualization of “fire behavior” and the case for a chimpanzee model.  American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 141: 646-650.

Wrangham, R.  2009.  Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.  New York: Basic Books.

Change is in you

A few posts ago, I wrote about how genetic testing could help conservationists reintegrate chimpanzees into the wild.  This is because chimpanzees are extremely diverse genetically; making it easy for geneticists to pinpoint what area of Africa an individual chimpanzee originated from.  In fact, chimpanzees (and all other great apes) are more genetically diverse than our species: Homo sapiens.  Recent genetic studies by molecular anthropologists have revealed that there are only 38 million unique genetic variants among the 3 billion base pair sequences within our species genome.  Although 38 million unique variants may seem like a lot, it is actually a very small fraction of our genome.  All the great apes are far more dissimilar than humans.  We appear to be a homogenous group!

But this begs the question: why are we so similar?

On further reflection it becomes very perplexing.  After all, there are seven billion humans on…

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Evolution of Suicide

Evolution of Suicide

evo of suicide

Researchers have known for two centuries now that male suicide occurs at a much higher rate than female suicide.  Can a cultural explanation alone explain this disparity?  What do evolutionary theorist know about suicide?  And can it help us decrease the male suicide rate?