Friday, June 19, 2009

Chimpanzees Know Geography

Chimpanzees are the closest related living creatures to humans. Besides shared physical and even social traits, the more chimpanzees are research the more similarities we realize. One of these similarities is that chimpanzees are geographers, too. By that statement I mean chimpanzees use mental maps.

Scientists who studied chimpanzees for years using GPS noted that the animals use euclidean geometry (angles, walking in straight lines) to navigate from point to point. A BBC article on the subject noted chimpanzees know where productive trees are and will purposefully travel to places where better fruit is. A previous 1984 study revealed that chimpanzees will also factor in geography when deciding which stone tools to use.

Instead of just being nomads roaming from place to place chimapanzees are creatures who understand they live in a spatial world. Reports like this makes one wonder about when was the first time a primate realized spatial data.

One thing that currently separates apes and homo sapiens is the ability to communicate spatial data to others whether vocally or visually through maps. This leap in ability seems to be a one of the great achievements of evolution. It would be fascinating to learn whether or not Neanderthals or any other branch or previous stage of humanity also had the ability to communicate geography.

3 comments:

geopam said...

In the Jean Auel "Earth Children" series, in one of the books, there is a photo of a very early map that is carved in ivory. Even then they used "standard" keys like /\/\/\/\ for mountains and ~~~~~ for water (sorry - can't reproduce those very well!) I think that they would HAVE to use, at the very least, mental geography in order to return to their cave, to remember where good hunting areas are, where certain plants are grown, etc. It sounds like the "missing link" is getting closer to us (homo sapien sapien)!

Matt said...

Hi,

Re: 'One thing that currently separates apes and homo sapiens is the ability to communicate spatial data to others whether vocally or visually through maps.'

I'm just interested - I'm really ignorant about this sort of stuff. Do we know for sure that apes can't communicate spatial data vocally? After all bees are supposed to communicate spatial data by 'dancing' - or is that a myth?

Catholicgauze said...

Good question Matt. I'll look into it.