Chimps: A toy story

Play is vital to human development – and our closest relatives thrive on it, too. Young chimps just want to have fun.

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Chimps: A Toy Story article spread

Play is vital to human development – and our closest relatives thrive on it, too. Young chimps just want to have fun.

In May 1993 Kakama was almost eight years old, a young chimpanzee on the verge of adolescence. He still spent most of his time alone with his mother, Kabarole, who was pregnant with her second offspring and slept a lot. Kakama often acted bored.

At 9.30 one ordinary morning, Kakama was playing by himself, a few metres away from Kabarole. He stamped the ground ashe rushed forwards in mock aggression, somersaulted over some dry leaves and came to rest straddling a small log. He lay there for a second or so before rolling onwards, clutching the log to his body.
 
After two more turns Kakama stood up with the log in his right hand and set off through the quiet forest, following his mother. A few minutes later, the pair arrived at a fruiting Drypetes tree and started to climb.
 
The log made Kakama’s ascent awkward, but he found a good feeding site 18m off the ground, placed it beside him in the fork of a branch and settled down to eat. Whenever he moved to pick more fruits, he never strayed far from his prize.
 
Bedtime games
 
By mid-morning mother and son were sleepy, so they made fresh nests from the leafy branches of the fruit tree. Kabarole was soon dead to the world, but Kakama was restless.
 
At one point he lay back with his limbs in the air, his log held aloft: he seemed to be playing a version of the ‘aeroplane game’, in which chimp or human mothers hold their infants face-down and ‘fly’ them through the air.
 
Before long, Kakama climbed out of bed and spent a few minutes making a second nest. This was most odd: the new abode was smaller than a normal nest and in a branch fork – an uncomfortable position for a chimp.
 
But the nest was not made for a chimp. Kakama placed his log inside, then left. Later he retrieved the object, abandoning it only when he and his mother had to flee from some charging bushpigs.
 
Fitting in
 
What was Kakama up to? Isolated incidents like this are always hard to interpret, but after years of observation we finally know that his behaviour fits a pattern for chimps in the Kanyawara community. To understand why, we first need to introduce the rest of the chimps.
 
This society of about 50 individuals lives in the mid-altitude forests of Kibale National Park in western Uganda, and is one of the best-known in Africa, having been the focus of detailed fieldwork for more than 20 years.
 
Like wild chimps everywhere, members of the group roam in search of ripe fruit each day.
 
The males tend to be gregarious, often travelling together and calling loudly to one another. The females are quieter and more likely to forage alone, with just their youngsters in tow. But no chimp is truly solitary: females also move around in small sub-groups in which their offspring can let off steam and learn together.
 
Experiments on captive chimps show how good they are at learning from each other, and in the wild the role of social learning is equally clear. The species’ behavioural repertoire has been documented in detail in a dozen communities in different parts of Africa, from Senegal to Tanzania.
 
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