The nature of spirituality is a curious thing, especially in the natural world. It’s thought that we humans might have developed our religious sensibilities through an evolutionary process.
It’s a tricky thing to prove, however. One of the ways to find that proof might be to see it in a lesser evolved species, like chimpanzees. Which is why when a research paper landed last year stating different groups of chimps throughout West Africa were regularly throwing rocks at a tree for reasons unknown, and leaving the stones piled at the tree’s base, there might be a deeper meaning to it.
The study posited several theories for what this behaviour meant, but one really jumped out: maybe the chimpanzees were practicing some kind of religious ritual. This led to media coverage that evidence of spirituality had been found in chimps.
But it seems the tantalizing possibility these apes were practicing a sort of spiritual ritual was too good to pass up, even if it was only one of many possible explanations for the animals’ behaviour, according to a recent NPR article. What could be a sign of ritual devotion, could also be a display of dominance or a method of long-distance communication.
In an interview with NPR, researcher Laura Kehoe explained the behaviour may be some ritualistic practice, but other explanations were more likely:
“This is the first time we have found chimpanzees repeatedly using stones at specific sites—with no relation to finding food. I think it most likely came about as part of a male display and could be related to long-distance communication—as there aren’t many roots with large buttresses for drumming in this area and the sound of a stone hitting a hollow tree may carry better in a savannah ecosystem.
“It is also possible that the stone accumulations may serve as some kind of territorial landmarks.”
So, while it’s indeed possible our furry forerunners are spiritually inclined, we’re nowhere near the point of being sure they are. For now, the evolutionary roots of spirituality will stay wrapped in mystery.