Brief communication: Reaction to fire by savanna chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Fongoli, Senegal: Conceptualization of “fire behavior” and the case for a chimpanzee model



The use and control of fire are uniquely human traits thought to have come about fairly late in the evolution of our lineage, and they are hypothesized to correlate with an increase in intellectual complexity. Given the relatively sophisticated cognitive abilities yet small brain size of living apes compared to humans and even early hominins, observations of wild chimpanzees' reactions to naturally occurring fire can help inform hypotheses about the likely responses of early hominins to fire. We use data on the behavior of savanna chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Fongoli, Senegal during two encounters with wildfires to illuminate the similarities between great apes and humans regarding their reaction to fire. Chimpanzees' close relatedness to our lineage makes them phylogenetically relevant to the study of hominid evolution, and the open, hot and dry environment at Fongoli, similar to the savanna mosaic thought to characterize much of hominid evolution, makes these apes ecologically important as a living primate model as well. Chimpanzees at Fongoli calmly monitor wildfires and change their behavior in anticipation of the fire's movement. The ability to conceptualize the “behavior” of fire may be a synapomorphic trait characterizing the human-chimpanzee clade. If the cognitive underpinnings of fire conceptualization are a primitive hominid trait, hypotheses concerning the origins of the control and use of fire may need revision. We argue that our findings exemplify the importance of using living chimpanzees as models for better understanding human evolution despite recently published suggestions to the contrary. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2010. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.