Life on Earth can seem a little lonely when you consider that we’re incapable of communicating with the rest of the animal kingdom. Imagine the wonders of the natural world we could discover if we could hear the tales of deep sea whales or migratory birds. Unfortunately, for various reasons, humans remain unique in possessing a syntactical language capable of abstract conversation. As much as we try to teach even one of our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzee, to use language, it seems humans are doomed to be forced to talk only amongst ourselves. Chimps might be genetically similar to us, but we are vastly different physically, intellectually, and socially.
However, a rare and unprecedented sighting at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia has primate researchers wondering if they have witnessed a breakthrough in understanding chimp social behavior. Researchers from the University of St Andrews were observing a group of chimps at the chimp orphanage when they discovered the death of a young male, who they called Thomas. A group of chimps had gathered around the corpse when, to the researchers’ surprise, Thomas’ adopted mother Noel began to clean the corpse’s teeth with blades of grass.
Noel remained by the corpse even after the other chimps had left. According to the team’s publication in Scientific Reports, they believe this is the first known example of such a funerary rite performed by chimps:
We consider the cleaning of a corpse’s teeth by Noel noteworthy for several reasons. First and foremost, to date, this behaviour has never been reported in chimpanzees or any other non-human animal species. [...] Furthermore, the records of death responses in non-human animals to date do not contain any elements of tool use.
Other researchers are careful to note, however, that since this is the first known example of such social behavior, it might be too early to draw definitive conclusions. Because there has been little research conducted into animal death responses, this research could potentially open new pathways to better understanding our animal neighbors.