Mourning the loss of a member of one's group-- parent, sibling, friend or neighbor-- seems in some ways a quintessentially human action. Mourning invokes memory that underwrites a feeling of loss-- Roland Barthes, writing about mourning his mother, comes to mind: shopping, he is thrown back to conversation with his mother by a simple word: "Voilá":

Solitude = having no one at home to whom you can say, I'll be back at a specific time, or whom you can call to say (or to whom you can just say), Voilà, I'm home now.

Barthes describes being moved to tears by hearing this simple word spoken by a shop girl, knowing his mother will never again say it to him. This seems all too familiar, and familiarly human.

Pan paniscus by Joachim S. Müller

So what do we make of a new paper documenting how mourning is expressed by a chimpanzee mother? This is the interpretation of observations made by Katherine Cronin and Edwin van Leeuwen of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. A report on the Institute website, accompanied by a video, describes the facts simply:

Cronin and Van Leeuwen observed the behaviour that a female chimpanzee expressed toward her 16-month-old infant who had recently died. After carrying the infant's dead body for more than a day, the mother laid the body out on the ground in a clearing and repeatedly approached the body and held her fingers against the infant's face and neck for multiple seconds. She remained near the body for nearly an hour, then carried it over to a group of chimpanzees and watched them investigate the body. The next day, the mother was no longer carrying the body of the infant.

Does this behavior satisfy our concept of "mourning"? The researchers urge others to view the video, and make their own decisions:

'The videos are extremely valuable, because they force one to stop and think about what might be happening in the minds of other primates', Cronin says. 'Whether a viewer ultimately decides that the chimpanzee is mourning, or simply curious about the corpse, is not nearly as important as people taking a moment to consider the possibilities.'

The experience is, for me, like that of reading Barthes' comments on his mourning of his mother. Taken on their own, without empathy for similar losses I have experienced, what Barthes describes is banal. A description of his actions would be as distanced as that of the mother chimpanzee's behavior offered on the Max Planck Institute website. But watching as the mother repeatedly approached the body of her infant, touching-- I want to write, "gently touching"-- his face, I cannot avoid the sense that this mother is trying to physically comprehend an absence as much as Barthes, through his reflective writing about his own experience, was discursively trying to understand loss and continuity.

As it happens, this new study and associated videos were publicized as I was in the middle of reading a forum in American Anthropologist on human nature. Put together by biological anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, the forum engages anthropologists with diverse opinions in debate. Fuentes argues that

one powerful contribution of anthropological work has been to challenge any unitary theory of the human. Yet another equally long-standing body of anthropological work emphasizes overarching similitude.

This dual position-- of insisting on the unity of humanity, past and present, while vigorously contesting the singularity of any one way of being human-- is the position in anthropology that tends to get misunderstood and often deliberately misrepresented by outsiders, who cannot understand a discipline framed around such a tension.

One of the central poles of the newly published forum, as it has been throughout the history of anthropology in North America, is the question of the relation of modern humans to our nearest living relatives, the non-human primates.

Jonathan Marks leads off, with the provocative claim that "We have evolved into biocultural ex-apes". Citing primatologists who are prominent in the public eye for their claims that "we are nothing but apes", Marks reiterates "We evolved; get over it". But lest readers leap to the wrong conclusion, Marks is not some fuzzy relativist; rather, he is a strong believer in anthropology as science. His conclusion stems from the argument that "evolution is the production of difference and novelty, and you are not your ancestors".

The warning here, I think, is against making the anthropocentric mistake of too easily assimilating our cousins to our selves. But that is only one side of the coin. The other comes from a claim anthropologist Tim Ingold identifies as inherent in parsing the question of human nature:

What is a human being? What does it mean to be human? To the first question, we might answer: a species of nature, a particular subdivision of the primate order. But we tend to answer the second question differently. To be human, we say, is to transcend the world of nature to be more than a mere organism. ..."human" points to the existential dilemma of a creature that can know itself and the world of which it is a part only through the renunciation of its very being in that world.

This quality of self-examination is what memory, projection of a future, and awareness of how alone one will be without the other depends on. But it seems a very lonely place to be; and this loneliness, Ingold's argument implies, is a product of our own constant desire to displace ourselves from the order of nature.

Instead, he suggests, we might "think of humans in terms not of what they are but of what they do":

To inquire into human life is thus to explore the conditions of possibility in a world peopled by beings whose identities are established, in the first place, not by received species- or culture-specific attributes but by relational accomplishment. ... real-world humans build themselves, and one another, in the crucible of their common life.

And so, it might be, do chimpanzees "build the crucible of their common life". What matters in viewing the interactions of a group of chimpanzees experiencing, and reacting to, the presence of death where previously there was life is not, for me, whether this is mourning or simply "curiousity about the corpse".

What we have here is an invitation to contemplate another way of being-- chimpanzee being-- not to merely project it on ourselves, or our selves on it, but to remind ourselves that human nature is not a thing: it is an ongoing way of acting that, the product of our evolution and history, places us in the apparently unique position of caring whether a chimpanzee mother mourns; and of mourning for her.


About the Author

Rosemary Joyce

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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