Witnessing the Real 'War of the Planet of the Apes'

What it's like when chimpanzees go to war. 

Now that the public knows the name of next Planet of the Apes ape-a-thon, War of the Planet of the Apes, fanboys can speculate about the plot and the number of awards that will pile up at Andy Serkis’s feet. But primatologists don’t have to speculate, because war is a real phenomenon among chimpanzees and we know what that sort of bloodshed looks like.

Chimp war is not dissimilar from human war. Chimps launch silent patrols and attempt to outmaneuver, isolate, and weaken their adversaries. There are also war crimes. Males and babies are occasionally cannibalized during and after battles. It is a phenomenon that highlights both the brutality of war and the fact that the Planet of the Apes movies are so eager to drive home: We’re not so different, them and us.

The Four-Year War

Jane Goodall, Pan troglodytes expert and discoverer of chimp tool use, was also the first to watch war among the non-human primates. The first recorded conflict broke out in Gombe National Park in the early seventies. A recent analysis of Goodall’s notes suggests, that, after an influential male died — the chimpanzee equivalent of Franz Ferdinand’s death — a formerly united group clove in two. The timeline of her observations, as recounted by the Jane Goodall Institute, is brutally brief and made worse by the whimsical nature with which Goodall named her subjects:

A chimp stands over a slain foe. Image credit: John Mitani

  • 1974: "Four-Year War" between splinter group, Kahama, and main Kasakela group begins. Godi disappears. Hugh disappears. De is severely beaten. 
  • 1975: Goliath is attacked. Cannibalism among the Gombe chimpanzees is first observed. Mother and daughter Passion and Pom steal and kill babies in their own community. 
  • 1976: The violence continues as Willy Wally disappears. 
  • 1977: Charlie is killed. Finally, the last Kahama male, Sniff, is killed.

Weapons of War

Although chimpanzees use sticks to fish for bugs in termite mounds and rocks to crack open nuts, there’s no sign chimpanzees use anything but tooth and claw in battle against each other. An international team of scientists recently watched Senegalese chimps fashion spears — snapping tree branches into manageable sizes, then munching the ends into points. The only primates on the business end of these sticks were adorable food (bushbabies). Considering that males hunt more frequently, the tools were used by a surprising number of female chimps. That’s about as advanced as a chimp gets — though you might be able to train a captive chimpanzee to hold an AK-47if you were so inclined.)

No Country for Old Chimps

In 2014, primatologists published a study of chimpanzee warfare in the journal Nature. Covering 18 wild chimpanzee groups and totaling 426 years’ worth of observations, the study tallied just over 150 cases of chimp killings. The scientists determined that it was an adaptive strategy, not human encroachment on chimp habitat, that determined when and where battles broke out. Because a few of those wars were inferred from evidence (think: mutilated remains) rather than directly recorded, experts have criticized the study’s conclusions, arguing that the possibility that habitat loss has triggered war cannot be discounted. Less controversially, the researchers reported that male chimpanzees perpetrated 92 percent of killings, which may be a technique males to ensure the dispersal of their genes

The Pacifists

Chimps could learn a thing from bonobos, a species of orgiastically-inclined, closely-related primates. Ravenous antelope-hunting tendencies aside, the “bonobo handshake” doesn’t involve hands (though it can). Having passed on the art of war, the bonobos subscribe to the theory of penile fencing, which is juvenile but safe. Ape love, not war. 

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