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
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine