Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

Chimpanzees and their Dead Relatives

Chimps’ Emotional Response to Death Caught on Film
Ian Sample, The Guardian (April 26, 2010)


Chimps ‘feel death like humans’
BBC News (April 26, 2010)

We humans have a peculiar relationship with chimpanzees. On the one hand, we like to understand ourselves in terms of chimp behaviors: tool making, group cohesion, even DNA. On the other hand, we humans don’t like it when chimps become aggressive and harm other animals, including humans.

We here at the Death Reference Desk have actually discussed chimps and death before.

It makes complete sense, then, that two different academic journal articles on chimpanzees mourning other dead chimps would attract human attention. The articles, which are discussed in The Guardian and the BBC News, engage in heavy doses of anthropomorphic desire, so much so, that I almost feel bad for the chimps. While it’s true that some of the mourning behavior shown by one group of captive chimps is similar to some human behavior, I’m not so sure that it says anything about either species.

The two videos from the journal articles show the first group of chimps surrounding a dying and then dead chimp. The second video shows a young chimp playing with the mummified carcass of a chimpanzee which the mother has hung onto.

Video one is what humans love to watch because that’s what we do. Video two is a different story altogether and clearly demonstrates a difference between the species.

But maybe video two is what we humans should really be watching. Maybe the chimp playing with the mummified corpse is what we should pay more attention to since that behavior seems so inhuman. Playing games with dead bodies seems ghastly and is actually, depending on the location it occurs, criminal. But what prevents humans from doing what these chimps, our closest primate relatives, are doing? I’ll go a step further and say that maybe the chimps offer humans a lesson in not forgetting about the materiality of death…but now I’m anthropomorphizing too.

Video 1: Chimps mourning

Video 2: Chimps with mummified corpse

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