Meat the Family

The hunting apes

Weapon of Choice: The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior

By: Craig B Stanford, Professor of Anthropology and Biological Sciences, University of Southern California


Did you know that chimpanzees are vicious hunters and passionate eaters of meat?

It’s true. Chimps band together in hunting parties, chase down prey, and tear other animals apart.  The cuter the prey, the better: red colobus monkeys, piglets, and baby antelope are their faves.

Chimp hunters will often target colobus monkeys carrying small infants. They will snatch the defenseless babies, bash their heads with a rock, and rip them apart limb from limb.  This is nature red in tooth and claw, and the opposite of the waddling, banana-eating idea of chimpanzees most of us carry in our minds.

Meating of the Minds

Chimpanzees are the only great ape to hunt and eat large amounts of meat.  Hunting and meat-eating require extraordinary levels of human-like cooperation. Chimp 1For example, during a hunt, one chimp will drive prey toward another chimp who is waiting to ambush.

Chimp hunters who fail to make a kill, but who have contributed to the overall success of the hunt, still end up being given a share of the meat.  While this may not seem impressive at first, this sort of “sharing” requires a lot of mental horsepower that only humans and great apes possess.  Sharing meat in this way is called “altruistic reciprocity” and it likely forms the basis of the sophisticated levels of cooperation found in humans.

Not all members of a hunting party benefit from altruistic reciprocity, though.  Younger, low-status members must often watch from the periphery as senior hunters crunch ravenously on bones and flesh, slurping up that delicious, fatty marrow.  chimp_beggingAfter an hour’s wait, these unlucky scroungers may only receive a few drops of blood or shards of bone.

Chimpanzees also use meat as a tool of manipulation.  They will barter meat for sexy times with fertile females, and they will  publicly reward an ally with a piglet leg or refuse meat to a rival, just to make a point.  This is pretty sophisticated behavior — in the same ballpark as not inviting a frenemy to your dinner party.

Strategic Lying and other Parlour Tricks

In the entire animal kingdom, there are just four types of primate who hunt and eat meat:

  1. Capuchins  Capuchin     
  2. Chimpanzees  Chimp 2    
  3. Baboons  Babouin doguera emportant une jeune gazelle RN Masaï Mara -  -  -    
  4. Humans  12 year old hunter 

What is the common thread linking these four species together?

For starters, they are the smartest creatures to walk the earth, and the only ones capable of lying and deceiving.  That’s right: lying and deceiving is a tremendously sophisticated intellectual phenomenon.

What does lying and deceiving have to do with sharing meat?  They are political skills intimately tied up with the strategic sharing of meat.  Sharing meat requires tremendous social and political intelligence — keeping track of your allies and enemies, and also who has shared meat with you in the past, is no easy feat.

Gorillas, by contrast, are considered the cows of the primate order – they spend their days packing their massive serpentine digestive systems full of low-nutrient plant matter.  fat-gorilla 2Researchers can locate them in the forest by the grumbling of their stomachs — you can literally hear them fart a mile away.  Gorillas are lovely creatures, and not at all scheming and Machiavellian the way humans and chimps are.  We should definitely do more to protect them.

The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior sheds a lot of light on the origins of human meat-eating.  Vegetarians may not want to hear this, but humans did not evolve to live purely on a plant-based diet.  We evolved to hunt and eat cooked meat.  We CAN live off a purely plant-based diet, but the paleo-gods have decreed that optimal human nutrition requires bits of flesh now and then.

Categories: PrimatologyTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Why would you show a human in camo to illustrate humans who eat meat? You could show the majority of the Western World at a grocery store to make your point.


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