Do chimpanzees understand death?
My new column for The New York Times Magazine involved some of the most emotionally intense reporting I've done in a while. It's all about a little-discussed genre of observation-based scientific papers, documenting what chimpanzees and bonobos (and, sometimes, other primates) do when confronted with death. These are difficult events for scientists to catch — they don't happen very often, and it's even less frequent that researchers happen to be right there to record and film the whole thing, especially in the wild. Because of that, scientists can't say a lot that's definitive about these behaviors. But they can tell you what they've seen. And what they've seen can be devastating.
Pansy was probably in her 50s when she died, which is pretty good for a chimpanzee. She passed in a way most of us would envy — peacefully, with her adult daughter, Rosie, and her best friend, Blossom, by her side. Thirty years earlier, Pansy and Blossom arrived together at the Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park near Stirling, Scotland. They raised their children together. Now, as Pansy struggled to breathe, Blossom held her hand and stroked it. When the scientists at the park realized Pansy’s death was imminent, they turned on video cameras, capturing intimate moments during her last hours as Blossom, Rosie and Blossom’s son, Chippy, groomed her and comforted her as she got weaker. After she passed, the chimps examined the body, inspecting Pansy’s mouth, pulling her arm and leaning their faces close to hers. Blossom sat by Pansy’s body through the night. And when she finally moved away to sleep in a different part of the enclosure, she did so fitfully, waking and repositioning herself dozens more times than was normal. For five days after Pansy’s death, none of the other chimps would sleep on the platform where she died.
That's my re-telling of an incident that happened in 2010 in Scotland and was originally observed by James Anderson, a primate psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland. His full paper is available online, and it's definitely worth a read. Anderson's paper is the one that got me into this topic to begin with and he was instrumental in my reporting.
The video above is a different incident, which I also talk about in the Times piece. This one involves a group of bonobos who defend the body of a newcomer and relative stranger to their pack. The footage was taken by Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke.