Fire holds no fears for chimps, says scientist

But did the early ancestor of Man learn how to control it?

Wild chimpanzees have been observed carrying out a “fire dance” in front of grassland wildfires as part of a suite of unusual behaviours that could indicate an ability of man’s closet living relative to understand and even control fire.

Instead of fleeing the wildfires in panic, the chimps were seen to monitor them carefully, showing no signs of the fear that other animals normally exhibit. Their leader – the alpha male – was even observed performing a ritualistic display while facing the flames.

The observations could shed light on when our human ancestors first controlled fire – a key stage in human evolution. Scientists said that if chimps are able to understand the nature of fire then the same could have been true for the small-brained, ape-like ancestors of humans that lived millions of years ago.

Jill Pruetz, an anthropologist at Iowa State University in Ames, said that she observed the fire-dancing behaviour a couple of times in a group of chimps living in a savannah region at Fongoli in Senegal where wildfires often occur towards the end of the dry season.

“I saw it a couple of times in 2006 and I was really surprised at how good the chimps were at predicting the behaviour of fire. These were basically fires that occur at the end of the dry season and they can burn very hot and can move very fast,” Dr Pruetz said.

“They were much better than I was in predicting how the fire would move. In one case the fire was around us on three sides yet they were very calm and they minimised the distance and the amount of time they had to move.”

The “fire dance” of the alpha male was similar to the rain-dancing behaviour observed by primatologist Jane Goodall, when the dominant chimp would begin to sway in slow motion at the signs of an approaching storm, Dr Pruetz said.

“Chimps everywhere have what is called a rain dance and it’s just a big male display to show dominance,” she said. “Males display all the time for a number of different reasons, but when there’s a big thunderstorm approaching they do this exaggerated display, it’s almost like slow motion.

“When I was with this one party of chimps at Fongoli, the dominant male did the same sort of thing, but it was towards the fire, so I called it the fire dance.

“It wasn’t directed at other members of the group but at the fire itself. As the fire approached them, and the sound of cracking and popping was really deafening, the male started this exaggerated display.”

At one point, the leader of the group appeared to emit a barking noise unlike any other warning sound that the chimps use to communicate danger to one another. “This happened before the fire dance. I could hear it for literally hundreds of metres,” Dr Pruetz said.

“The chimps became more timid as the fire came closer, and the alpha male went out of sight and I heard him give this variation of a warning bark. I had never heard this particular vocalisation before. It seemed to me to be specific to the fire, but I don’t know what he was communicating,” she said.

Equally surprising was the general calmness of the group to an approaching fire, even when the smoke and flames were clearly visible. Dr Pruetz said that she was astonished at how calm the chimps were and this could be a key stage in the control of fire: “It’s important to conceptualise fire in order to overcome the fear of it. Some people think that for humans there is an innate fear of fire and to overcome it is the first step in ultimately controlling it and being able to make fire.

“I think that chimps are perfectly capable of controlling fire. We watch their behaviour in the face of fire and we think they can conceptualise fire, and we see that captive apes can control fire. But they we have to ask why would they do it [in the wild], what is the impetus?”

The study, to be published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, lends support to the idea that the control of fire occurred relatively early in human evolution. Although there is archaeological evidence from burnt remnants that human ancestors controlled fire more than a million years ago, some scientists believe this is contentious. The earliest hearths, which are indisputable evidence for the control of fire, date to less than 1 million years old.

Dr Pruetz said: “Our data contributes to the argument in that, if we have this animal that is small-brained but cognitively sophisticated, then maybe we should rethink those data from Australopithecines [early human ancestors] in how they may have reacted to fire and reconsider the data at some sites that indicate there was some kind of control of fire.”

* Additional research by Fergal MacErlean

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick