Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence

By Richard Wrangham, Dale Peterson.

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Chapter One: Paradise Lost

“You will be killed!” the man at the Burundian embassy in Kampala said, in a bizarrely cheerful voice, as he stamped our visas.

bonobo anthropoid ape, resembling but smaller than the common chimpanzee. Also called pygmy chimpanzee. Bonobos

But killing was the reason we were in Africa. Dale Peterson and I were exploring the deep origins of human violence, back to the time before our species diverged from rainforest apes, 5 to 6 million years ago. Not only ancestral to humans, those early rainforest apes were also part of a genetic line now represented by the four modern great ape species: orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Both of us had already observed orangutans in Borneo and gorillas and chimpanzees in Africa, but neither of us had yet seen the fourth and rarest ape, the bonobo, in the wild.

Zaire a republic in central Africa; achieved independence from Belgium in 1960. Zaire

To get to the bonobos, we first had to reach Bukavu, a town on the eastern side of Zaire, just across the border from Rwanda. In Bukavu, we would pick up a single-engine plane and fly west for three hours across a sea of forest until, having passed more than halfway across the continent, we would find an airstrip and a little town isolated in that great green world. Near the town was the small pocket of rainforest where the bonobos lived.

To fly directly from Uganda to Zaire was impossible because the shaky Zairean government, fighting for control of the country, had closed all international airports, and driving overland was not advised because of discouraging reports about bandits and guerrillas. And so we had decided to fly south from Uganda into Burundi, then drive a rented van through Burundi and Rwanda, and on into eastern Zaire.

Tutsis a member of a Bantu speaking people living in Rwanda and Burundi. Tutsis

But Burundi was not at peace either. Half a dozen waves of ethnic slaughter had swept that small nation in recent years. In one month in 1972, Tutsis killed nearly every Hutu leader and any other Hutu who appeared literate. Tutsis, though they accounted for only about 15 percent of the populace, thus during the next two decades controlled the civil service, the military, and, within a one-party system, the upper reaches of government. Until 1993, when the country experimented with democratic, multiparty elections for the first time in history, every president had come from the minority Tutsis.

Melchior Ndadaye (1953 to 1993) Burundian intellectual and politician. Melchior Ndadaye

The June 1993 elections produced Burundi's first Hutu president, a political moderate, a believer in nonviolence and ethnic reconciliation, Melchior Ndadaye. But in the early morning of October 21, 1993, four months before we paid for our visas, an army tank rammed a hole in the white stucco wall of the presidential palace and radical Tutsi soldiers stabbed President Ndadaye to death with a knife. They also assassinated a half dozen other high officials from Ndadaye's government; the surviving ministers took refuge behind French troops at a hotel in Bujumbura, Burundi's capital city.

As the surviving ministers broadcast over Radio Rwanda appeals for the people to “rise up as one man and defend Burundi's democratic institutions,” Hutus around the country took rough weapons, mostly machetes and spears, and slaughtered Tutsis over the next three months. In return, Tutsi soldiers and civilians massacred Hutus whenever possible.

The airport of Bujumbura was quiet, just about empty, and watched over by men with guns when we flew in from Kampala on February 12. Someone said (in French): “The road is good today. It wasn't yesterday. May not be tomorrow.” So we jumped into a rented van and drove through the lowlands west toward Rwanda and Zaire.

Burundi was green and cool and damp. We crossed a fertile land with rippled lakes of grass and corrugated fields growing maize and manioc. There were herds of long-horned cattle, rich smells, women carrying long bundles of twisted sticks on their heads, a woman wrapped in cloth standing in a fresh field and lifting and dropping a hoe. Unfriendly men in uniform, holding guns, stopped us at a roadblock, looked at our papers, and then allowed us to pass.

A few hours and three roadblocks later, we passed through immigration and customs into Rwanda. The road curved into the hills and then into the mountains and began disintegrating, yet still turning and winding ahead and up into a promising place where cloud and mountain casually intermingled. We stopped for a moment, looked over a sweep of floodplain and toothy mountains rising in the distance, listened to the roar and rush of a river below, and then, back in the van, continued moving through this elevated paradise of villages and small plantation plots edged by banana trees and bamboo fences.

The troubles hadn't come to Rwanda yet. They wouldn't come for another seven weeks, until April 6, when the Rwandan president and Burundi's interim president were assassinated. The presidents were returning together from a conference in Tanzania when their descending plane was shot down over the capital of Rwanda by unidentified men firing from the ground.

genocide The Rwandan Genocide (1994). 8*10^6 deaths.

In a mirror image of the situation in Burundi, Rwandan Hutus controlled the army and the government while Tutsis were kept out. Within the first three days following the assassination, the Hutu army and militia began to carry out a well-organized campaign of genocide. The army executed all opposition leaders: sixty-eight Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Transitional Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana was murdered. United Nations guards protecting her were tortured, sexually mutilated, and killed. The minister of labor was cut into three pieces and used as a roadblock.

Then the real killing began. Tutsi men, women, and children were massacred in the Red Cross refugee camps where they sought protection. Tutsi patients and staff were hacked to death in a hospital as foreign doctors watched. Tutsi families huddling for sanctuary inside a mission were blown up with hand grenades, then doused with gasoline and set on fire; the few survivors who tried to run away were cut down with machetes. Estimates of the number dead ranged as high as half a million, whose blood and bodies literally flowed out of that small, beautiful country. Sweeping along the muddy Rusumo River into Tanzania, “piles of corpses bobbed like rag dolls,” according to a reporter for Newsweek. Authorities in Uganda estimated 10,000 bodies had washed down the Kagera River, out of Rwanda and into Lake Victoria, where they washed up against Ugandan shores.

Ngoga Murumba, a Ugandan farmer hired to haul the bodies out of the lake and dispose of them, described a numbing of horror, a blurring of memory. He had wrapped in plastic sheeting and stacked hundreds of bodies; only a single vision disturbed his mind. “One time I found a woman,” he said. “She had five children tied to her. One on each arm. One on each leg. One on her back. She had no wounds….”

At the end of Rwanda we descended, made a turn, and came to a body of water, a crowd of people, some cars, men with guns, a couple of barriers, and slid—after some minor harassment, negotiation, and small bribes solicited and rejected—into Zaire.

The horror in Rwanda had not yet begun. That woman and her five children were still alive somewhere in the country. We proceeded across the border into Zaire, then flew onward across hundreds of miles of rainforest into Equateur Province, to a landing strip in the village of Djolu. By following the lines of human ancestry back toward our common ancestry with the great apes, we were looking for patterns of behavior that would offer, so we believed, clues to a profound and disturbing mystery of the human species.

Some twenty years before our trip into central Zaire, during the early afternoon of January 7, 1974, in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, a group of eight chimpanzees traveled purposefully southward, toward the border of their range. They were a good fighting party: seven males, six of them adults, one an adolescent. The alpha male, Figan, was there. So was his rival, Humphrey. The only female with them was Gigi. Childless and tough, she wouldn't slow them down.

As they walked, they heard beyond them calls from the neighboring community, but they didn't shout or scream in reply. Instead they maintained an unusual silence and quickened their pace. They reached their border zone, but they didn't stop. Soon they were beyond their normal range, moving very quietly into the neighbors' territory. Breathlessly keeping pace with them was Hillali Matama, the senior field assistant from Jane Goodall's research center in Gombe.

Just inside the neighboring territory, Godi ate peacefully, alone in a tree. Godi was an ordinary male: a young adult about twenty-one years old and a member of the Kahama chimpanzee community. There were six other males in Kahama, and those earlier calls had told him where some of his comrades were. Often they all traveled together. But today Godi had chosen to eat alone. A mistake.

By the time he saw the eight intruders they were already at his tree. He leapt and ran, but his pursuers raced after him, the front three side by side. Humphrey got to him first, grabbing a leg. Godi, unbalanced, toppled at once. Humphrey jumped on him. Leaning with his full weight of so kilograms, pinning his opponent like a wrestler, holding down two of his limbs, Humphrey immobilized him. Godi lay helpless, his face crushed into the dirt.

While Humphrey held, the other males attacked. They were hugely excited, screaming and charging. Hugo, the eldest, hit Godi with teeth worn almost to the gums. The other adult males pummeled his shoulder blades and back. The adolescent watched from a distance. The female, Gigi, screamed and circled around the attack. (Imagine being battered by five heavyweight boxers and you have an idea of how Godi may have felt. Measured tests have demonstrated that even poorly conditioned captive chimpanzees are four to five times as strong as a human athlete in top condition.)

After ten minutes Humphrey let go of Godi's legs. The others stopped hitting him. Godi lay face down in the mud while a great rock was hurled toward him. Then, still wild with excitement, the attackers hurried deeper into the Kahama territory, hooting and charging. After a few minutes they returned to the north and back across the border into their own range. And Godi, slowly raising himself, screaming with fear and anguish, watched his tormentors go. There were appalling wounds on his face, body, and limbs. He was heavily bruised. He bled from dozens of gashes, cuts, and punctures.

He was never seen again. He may have lived on for a few days, perhaps a week or two. But he surely died.

The attack on Godi was a first. Certainly not the first time that chimpanzees had made a raid into the neighboring range to attack an enemy—but the first time any human observer had watched them do it. It is the first recorded instance of lethal raiding among chimpanzees, and among chimpanzee observers and animal scientists in general, it struck a momentous chord.

This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen among nonhumans. Until the attack on Godi, scientists treated the remarkable violence of humanity as something uniquely ours. To be sure, everyone knew that many animal species kill; but usually that killing is directed toward other species, toward prey. Individual animals—often males in sexual competition—fight with others of their own species; but that sort of contest typically ends the moment one competitor gives up. Scientists thought that only humans deliberately sought out and killed members of their own species. In our minds, we cloaked our own species' violence in culture and reason, two distinctly human attributes, and wondered what kind of original sin condemned us to this strange habit. And suddenly we found this event in the ape world. The attack on Godi suggested that chimpanzees might be a second species that killed its own kind deliberately. But how strange that the second species should be chimpanzees! After all, no species is more closely related to us than chimpanzees are.

What did it mean? Did Godi's pain point to a shared holdover from our evolutionary past? Did it imply that human killing is rooted in prehuman history? Or was Godi's death an aberration, a once-in-a-lifetime oddity, a meaningless expression of temporary ape insanity?

Time would tell.

Lethal raiding wasn't the only dark behavior to emerge during those early years of chimpanzee field research. Scientists also began to note instances of sexual violence.

When it comes to having sex, a female chimpanzee isn't normally very picky. She finds most males attractive, or at least tolerable. One kind of relationship, however, stops her in her tracks. She doesn't like to mate her maternal brothers. Even when those males court elaborately, with shaking branches and rude stares and proud postures, female chimpanzees refuse their brothers.

Normally, the female's reluctance to mate with her brother marks the end of it. But occasionally a brother can't stand being denied. She resists and avoids him. He becomes enraged. He chases and, using his greater size and strength, beats her. She screams and then rushes away and hides. He finds her and attacks again. He pounds and hits and holds her down, and there's nothing she can do. Out in the woods, there's a rape.

Jane Goodall (born 1934) primatologist, well-known for her study of chimps. Jane Goodall

For many of us, our first pictures of chimpanzees in the wild were from Jane Goodall's gentle portraits. In the early 1960s, 5 million years after our species separated, Jane Goodall and David Greybeard touched hands in mutual wonder, and a new kind of contact was established. Living in the wilds of Gombe, Goodall sketched for an entranced world the emotional lives of the apes she gave common names to: David Greybeard, Mike, Flo, Fifi, Gigi, and others. They had personalities we could understand: kind and gentle David, bold and daring Mike, lusty and savvy Flo. Their human gestures and vivid faces made them real as individuals. Their strong relationships made them seem familiar. We could relate to them and to what they do—extraordinary, humanlike things that were an eerie reminder of our shared ancestry.

Imagine that you're in chimpanzee country in West Africa, for example, walking through a warm, dark forest, and you hear a hammering sound. You follow it, thinking perhaps you're near an African village. Pressing through a thicket, you finally emerge into a relatively open area and see wild chimpanzees patiently working under a big nut tree, using stone hammers at their stone anvils, tap-tap-tapping on a hard nut until it breaks open. Sometimes the anvil is poorly balanced. The hammerer sees the problem, selects a smaller stone, and pushes it under the anvil as a stabilizing wedge. Tap-tap-tap. A youngster is trying, but she doesn't yet have the technique. The hammer doesn't seem to work. The mother takes it from her offspring, turns it upside down, and shows how it's done. A few minutes later, the daughter takes the stone back and tries her mother's way. Tap-tap-tap. Someone's smashed shell has a piece of nutmeat still tightly packed inside. She observes the problem, reaches for a twig, selects a spine, and uses it to pick out the last morsels.

Chimpanzee traditions ebb and flow, from community to community, across the continent of Africa. On any day of the year, somewhere chimpanzees are fishing for termites with stems gently wiggled into curling holes, or squeezing a wad of chewed leaves to get a quarter-cup of water from a narrow hole high up in a tree. Some will be gathering honey with a simple stick from a bee's nest, while others are collecting ants by luring them onto a peeled wand, then swiping them into their mouths.

There are chimpanzees in one place who protect themselves against thorny branches by sitting on leaf-cushions, and by using leafy sticks to act as sandals or gloves. Elsewhere are chimpanzees who traditionally drink by scooping water into a leaf-cup, and who use a leaf as a plate for food. There are chimpanzees using bone-picks to extract the last remnants of marrow from a monkey bone, others digging with stout sticks into mounds of ants or bees or termites, and still others using leaf-napkins to clean themselves or their babies. These are all local traditions, ways of solving problems that have somehow been learned, caught on, spread, and been passed across generations among the apes living in one community or a local group of communities but not beyond.

When feeding is done, the apes relax. In a sunny glade in an otherwise deeply shaded forest, six chimpanzees sack out after the morning meal. The only mother lies on her side with her head on her curled arm. In front of her sits her grown-up son, handsome and erect, chin raised to allow his cousin and lifelong friend to clean his beard. But the mother's gaze is drawn across the glade to another male, still slim at eighteen years old, verging on adulthood. He lies with his eyes closed, dead to the world it would seem, except that with his right foot he is playing with her two-year-old daughter. Every time the daughter totters forward to grab his foot, it glides forward into her tummy and knocks her over. All is quiet, peaceful. The youngster's chuckly little laugh is the only sound betraying the presence of the apes. For ten minutes she wrestles with and giggles at the strange, playful foot with a mind of its own.

The mother is at ease to see her daughter happy, but she feels unwell. She has diarrhea. She spots a familiar bush, the tummy medicine tree. So she stirs to reach it, pulls down the growing tips, and spends an unpleasant couple of minutes chewing the green pith. The juice is vilely bitter, not something she would ordinarily even touch, but now she forces herself to swallow the medicine. She'll be better soon.

“Rhhooff!” Suddenly the peaceful moment is shattered by a hunting bark from a hundred yards away. Everyone lurches awake, up and running to see what's going on. Three males have cornered an unwary group of red colobus monkeys in a tall tree with only one good escape route. One of the hunters climbs high toward the terrified colobus group and rushes at them, pretending to come straight on but stopping short and shaking a branch at them, hoping to scare them into trying the escape route. One monkey jumps wildly, lands far away in another tree, and manages to scamper off. But the next one tries the more obvious escape and is snatched by a waiting chimpanzee as soon as he lands. The remaining monkeys pause in terror on their high perch. Now a hunter approaches, grasps their five-inch-thick branch, and furiously shakes it, until one, two, and finally three colobus jump or are shaken off. They leap and scamper frantically. And so it goes. Some chimpanzees press the attack, others focus the quarry's retreat, others wait in ambush, and soon the hunter apes have killed four monkeys.

A big male sits with meat in hand. Three other chimpanzees cluster around him, reaching eagerly with outstretched hands, watching anxiously for any sign of favor. One of the supplicants is his ally, his friend in the community's ongoing male status contests. So the meat owner tears a piece off his prize and drops it into his friend's hand. Encouraged by these signs of generosity, a female supplicant turns and invites the meat owner to mate. He does so, at the same time holding his valued property high to prevent a greedy hand from taking any. Then, after settling back, he rewards the willing female with a chew.

Another male, lacking meat to entice the attractive female, courts in his own special way from a few yards back. He picks a leaf and pulls at it, tearing the blade. She hears and sees him, and she understands the signal. So she goes to the sign-making male and mates with him, too.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 to 1778). French philosopher and writer born in Switzerland; believed that the natural goodness of man was warped by society; ideas influenced the French Revolution. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Paul Gauguin Paul Gauguin = (1848 to 1903). Leading Post-Impressionist painter. Paul Gauguin

Wild chimpanzees in the dappled forest teaching and learning, playing, communicating with invented signals, doctoring themselves, using tools to enrich their food supply. These scenes conjure classic visions of a peace in nature, an Eden of prehistory. Here is the brightly lit side of the picture, the angle we can all enjoy, and for more than a decade after Jane Goodall launched her study, it was the only side we knew. Like a rich fantasy by Jean Jacques Rousseau or a brilliantly colored canvas by Paul Gauguin, our first real view of chimpanzees was untroubled by any indications of serious social conflict. The apes seemed to wander without boundaries, with no fear of strangers. Sex was public, promiscuous, and unprovocative. There was little fighting over food. Science writer Robert Ardrey captured the mood of how we felt about them. Chimpanzees showed us, he wrote in 1966, an “arcadian existence of primal innocence.” They stood for an idyllic past “which we once believed was the paradise that man had somehow lost.”

But then came Godi's death. It's true that for the most part chimpanzees lead very peaceful lives, but the attack on Godi raised the sudden possibility that chimpanzees had a dark side yet to be understood. Was this violence an aberration or the norm? Now, two decades later, we know the answer.

Jane Goodall was the first to watch chimpanzees at close quarters in the wild. She established her camp in a part of Tanzania's Gombe National Park known locally as Kasekela and began giving bananas to the chimpanzees in order to keep them near the camp. By 1966 she had identified fifteen different females and seventeen males in the area, as well as the young traveling with their mothers. All of these Kasekela chimpanzees interacted peaceably, and so Goodall thought of them as comprising a single community. But within that large community, so it slowly became apparent, two subgroups existed or were developing. Most of the individuals who showed up at the banana provisioning site came from all around, randomly; but a few tended to come from a particular direction, the south, and the southern chimpanzees usually stayed close to each other.

I arrived at Gombe in 1970, just as the north-south community division was beginning to be recognized. A zoology graduate student, I was supposed to be studying the relation between behavior and the food supply, but naturally I was drawn to the unfolding drama of the rival subgroups.

By 1971 the signs of a rift had become more obvious. During that year the eight adult males in the northern subgroup (Evered, Faben, Figan, Hugo, Humphrey, Jomeo, Mike, and Satan) and the seven from the south (Charlie, De, Godi, Goliath, Hugh, Sniff, and Willy Wally) met less and less. When members of the two groups did encounter each other, there was obvious tension, particularly when Humphrey and Charlie were both present. These two were the dominant males of their subgroups and neither was willing to be friendly to the other, so any meetings involving them were launched by noisy, furious charges, followed by separated clusters of males grooming each other on opposite sides of the provisioning area.

By 1972 the only males nervy or oblivious enough to cross between the subgroups were Hugo and Goliath, the two oldest males, lifelong friends now weary with age. And by 1973 even this minimal contact had stopped.

So now there were two communities: the original one, Kasekela, and the southern breakoff, Kahama. It was a pity to see old friendships founder but, from the researchers' point of view, the split was interesting because now there were two communities unafraid of humans. For the first time we could watch interactions from both sides of a border.

Alongside other students and a growing corps of Tanzanian field assistants, I followed chimpanzees from dawn to dusk whenever opportunity and energy allowed. The long days took me to the far valleys of both communities' areas. I noted how in four-day cycles, parties composed of perhaps half a dozen males, sometimes with one or two females, would move tightly in patrols along the edges of their range in every direction. I came to see where they tended to turn back toward the core of their range and how their behavior changed as they reached the boundaries. I learned where they were likely to stop and listen, and many times I heard them exchange raucous calls with males from the neighboring community. I saw how eager they were to embrace and grab each other in reassurance when they heard the exciting, alarming call of neighbors. I noted how, after listening to check that the other party was smaller than their own, they would rush forward to chase them from half a mile away; and sometimes they caught a neighbor and attacked him. Sometimes they made a mistake and charged toward a party that, despite sounding small at first, proved large, a situation that led to an immediate, confused, and hilarious retreat by the invaders back into the heart of their own land. I saw this latter event twice: the sudden conversion of a team of confident warriors into silent, scattered, nervous homebodies.

Comparing notes with my colleagues from the hot, exciting days of that year of discovery, I came to share with them a new view of male chimpanzees as defenders of a group territory, a gang committed to the ethnic purity of their own set. By the fourteenth of August 1973, when a party of Kahama males led me to the freshly killed body of an unfamiliar adult female, we had fully accepted that these apes were ferocious defenders of community territory. Punctures on the victim's back indicated bites, her stretched body and tortured grip spoke of being dragged against her will, and a twisted final posture echoed the violence of her death.

Defense of territory is widespread among many species, but the Kasekela chimpanzees were doing more than defending. They didn't wait to be alerted to the presence of intruders. Sometimes they moved right through border zones and penetrated half a mile or more into neighboring land. They did no feeding on these ventures. And three times I saw them attack lone neighbors. So they seemed to be looking for encounters in the neighboring range. These expeditions were different from mere defense, or even border patrols. These were raids.

A raid could begin deep in the home area, with several small parties and individuals of the community calling to each other. Sometimes the most dominant male—the alpha male—charged between the small parties, dragging branches, clearly excited. Others would watch and soon catch his mood. After a few minutes they would join him. The alpha male would only have to check back over his shoulder a few times The group would move briskly.

Imagine it, then. The larger group, all or nearly all adult males, settles into a journey, stopping now and again to listen and look and rest. After a twenty-minute climb they reach a ridge, a border zone where they can either look back into their own valley or onward into the neighbors' range. They rest. Several climb trees. All are silent. All face the neighboring range. To the west, Lake Tanganyika sparkles through leafless trees.

parinari ?

After ten minutes they go on, more slowly now, cautious, newly alert even to ordinary sounds like snapping sticks. They leave the familiar range behind. They pause, listen. No calls from the neighbors. Are the neighbors somewhere around, merely silent as we are? Or are they away in this dry season, eating the parinari fruits in the high valleys? The party presses on.

Deep in the neighboring range now, they rest just before the top of a hill. Suddenly we hear footsteps on crisp dry leaves a few yards away, but the walker is hidden by the ridge and can't be identified. The raiding party freezes. The footsteps stop. Our alpha male is rigid, staring where he last heard the footsteps. The walker must be a few meters beyond, out of sight. Resting? Aware of us? Is it a chimpanzee? If so, it has to be an enemy. There's danger here, because where there's one ape, there could be others. But what if they're alone? Or what if it's only a lone mother and infant?

After six minutes of waiting for the walker to appear, the tension is too much for the alpha male. But he can't walk forward without crunching in the leaves, giving his position away just as the walker did. So he reaches forward and quietly grasps a sapling six inches above the ground. Then another with his other hand. Then another with a foot. He reaches a stump with his other foot. And so he steals forward, silent above the leaf litter until he sees who it is. It's a baboon! The tension drops, and he sits down without bothering to be quiet. It's not an enemy. It's only a baboon….

That was the sort of excursion that made chimpanzee territoriality seem more than defensive. The deep thrusts into neighboring lands weren't mere reactions, and they weren't in search of food: The raiders passed up chances to feed on the way and often fed only on their return. These raids were beginning to help us make sense of other problems. They explained why, whenever food supplies allowed, chimpanzees preferred staying together. There was power and safety in numbers. But why were these males raiding in the first place? That wasn't so clear.

Then came the killing of Godi. And seven weeks later, a second attack took place. Once again the victim was an isolated Kahama male—De was his name—and the attackers were a gang of four from Kasekela: three adult males and one adult female. One adult male, an adolescent male, and a younger female from Kahama watched from a short distance; clearly distressed, they were threatened away from time to time by one or more of the aggressors.

Upon sighting De, the Kasekela group rushed forward in obvious excitement, screaming, barking, and hooting, and surrounded their quarry. While the female of the raiding party, Gigi, screamed threateningly, the three Kasekela males closed in. De was helpless. According to the human observers, “He soon stopped struggling and sat hunched over, uttering squeaks.” But at last he attempted to escape by climbing a tree, then leaping into another tree. Assaulted there, he fled onto a branch that broke under his weight and left him dangling low. From the ground, one of the Kasekela males was able to grab him by the leg and pull him down, and all three males, screaming, continued their assault. Finally Gigi joined in so that now all four were striking and stomping on the isolated male. They dragged him along the ground, biting and tearing the skin from his legs, and ceased their attack only after twenty minutes—having meanwhile driven away the two other Kahama males and, with threats, forced the young Kahama female to join their party. De was observed two months later, crippled, still severely wounded, and then never seen again. Missing, presumed dead.

One year later, a gang from Kasekela found their third victim. This time the target was Goliath, now well past his prime, with a bald head, very worn teeth, protruding ribs and spine. He may have been well into his fifties. It was many years since he had last competed for dominance. He had been a well-integrated member of the Kasekela community only five years before, and now (though he had since joined the Kahama group) he was little threat to anyone. But none of that mattered to the aggressors.

It began as a border patrol. At one point they sat still on a ridge, staring down into Kahama Valley for more than three-quarters of an hour, until they spotted Goliath, apparently hiding only twenty-five meters away. The raiders rushed madly down the slope to their target. While Goliath screamed and the patrol hooted and displayed, he was held and beaten and kicked and lifted and dropped and bitten and jumped on. At first he tried to protect his head, but soon he gave up and lay stretched out and still. His aggressors showed their excitement in a continuous barrage of hooting and drumming and charging and branch-waving and screaming. They kept up the attack for eighteen minutes, then turned for home, still energized, running and screaming and banging on tree-root buttresses. Bleeding freely from his head, gashed on his back, Goliath tried to sit up but fell back shivering. He too was never seen again.

So it went. One by one the six adult males of the Kahama community disappeared, until by the middle of 1977 an adolescent named Sniff, around seventeen years old, was the lone defender. Sniff, who as a youngster in the 1960s had played with the Kasekela males, was caught late on November 11. Six Kasekela males screamed and barked in excitement as they hit, grabbed, and bit their victim viciously—wounding him in the mouth, forehead, nose, and back, and breaking one leg. Goblin struck the victim repeatedly in the nose. Sherry, an adolescent just a year or two younger than Sniff, punched him. Satan grabbed Sniff by the neck and drank the blood streaming down his face. Then Satan was joined by Sherry, and the two screaming males pulled young Sniff down a hill. Sniff was seen one day later, crippled, almost unable to move. After that he was not seen and was presumed dead.

Three adult females, Madam Bee, Mandy, and Wanda, at one time had belonged to the Kahama group, along with their offspring. But Mandy and Wanda eventually disappeared, as did their young, while Madam Bee and her two daughters, Little Bee and Honey Bee, were beaten by Kasekela males several times. Then in September 1975, four adult males charged the old female, dragging, slapping, stomping on her, picking her up and hurling her to the ground, pounding her until she collapsed and lay inert. She managed to crawl away that day, only to die five days later. The assault on Madam Bee, incidentally, was watched by the adolescent Goblin and four Kasekela females, including Little Bee, who had become associated with Kasekela by then. Four months after Madam Bee was killed, her younger daughter, Honey flee, also transferred to Kasekela.

By the end of 1977 Kahama was no more.

Horrifying as these events were, the most difficult aspect to accept was not the physical unpleasantness but the fact that the attackers knew their victims so well. They had been close companions before the community split.

It was hard for the researchers to reconcile these episodes with the opposite but equally accurate observations of adult males sharing friendship and generosity and fun: lolling against each other on sleepy afternoons, laughing together in childish play, romping around a tree trunk while batting at each other's feet, offering a handful of prized meat, making up after a squabble, grooming for long hours, staying with a sick friend. The new contrary episodes of violence bespoke huge emotions normally hidden, social attitudes that could switch with extraordinary and repulsive ease. We all found ourselves surprised, fascinated, and angry as the number of cases mounted. How could they kill their former friends like that?

Jane Goodall's early decision to provision the Gombe chimpanzees with bananas allowed observations that would otherwise have been very difficult to get. After evidence of chimpanzee violence appeared, though, some people suggested that aggression in Gombe was all the result of provisioning these wild apes with bananas: providing too dense a food source and thereby intensifying competition, promoting frustration, and ultimately bringing about unnatural behavior.

However, even at Gombe, as it turned out, researchers soon saw aggression practiced by chimpanzees who had never been provisioned with bananas. After they had destroyed the Kahama community, the Kasekela chimpanzees expanded their territory into the Kahama heartland. At the edges of this newly expanded territory they met strangers coming up from a community in the south, from Kalande. Attacks ensued, and this time the Kasekela chimpanzees were the victims. Yet the aggressors had never visited Goodall's bananas—until one shocking day in 1982 when a raiding party from Kalande reached her camp. Some of the Kalande raids may have been lethal. Humphrey died near the border in 1981, his body found but his death unseen. Two infants died.

And elsewhere in Africa?

One hundred thirty kilometers south of Gombe, Toshisada Nishida has been studying chimpanzees in Tanzania's Mahale Mountains National Park since 1965, in the only chimpanzee research project other than Goodall's to have lasted for more than twenty years. And just as at Gombe, Nishida's team has seen border patrols, violent charges toward strangers, and furious clashes between male parties from neighboring communities. Once, in 1974, a male from one community was caught by three from another. He was held down, bitten, and stomped on, but he escaped. Is the violence at Mahale any less severe than at Gombe? Nishida doesn't think so. From 1969 to 1982, seven males of one community disappeared one by one, until the community was extinguished. Nishida and his team think that some, maybe most, of those who disappeared were killed by neighbors.

On the other side of the continent things look much the same. In West Africa the first hint of intercommunity violence came in 1977, within Senegal's Niokola-Koba National Park, when conservationist Stella Brewer brought a group of ex-captive chimps into the forest with hopes of reintroducing them to a wild existence. But repeated attacks by native chimpanzees, including a terrifying nighttime raid of the camp by a gang of four adults, finally forced Brewer to shut her experiment down.

Only a few hundred kilometers from Niokola-Koba, within the spectacularly rich Tai Forest of Ivory Coast, West Africa, Swiss scientists Christophe and Hedwige Boesch have been studying wild chimpanzees since 1979. Among the Tai chimps, territorial fights between neighboring communities were recorded once a month, on average; and the Boesches believe that violent aggression among the chimpanzees here is as important as it is in Gombe. When an epidemic of Ebola virus reduced the number of adult males in the study community to two, Christophe Boesch feared that it would be taken over by a stronger neighboring group.

In 1987 I joined Gilbert Isabirye-Basuta in his study of chimpanzees in the Kibale Forest, Western Uganda. One of the chimpanzees I came to know well, Ruwenzori, was by 1991 about fifteen years old, still the smallest and probably youngest of a clique of five teenaged males. In the second week of August, Ruwenzori was killed. No humans saw the big fight. We know something about it, however, because for days before he went missing, our males had been traveling together near the border, exchanging calls with the males from the Wantabu community to the south, evidently afraid of meeting them. Four days after he was last seen, our team found his disintegrating body hunched at the bottom of a little slope. The trampled vegetation bore witness to a struggle that started upslope and careened downward, sometimes sideways, for fifteen meters or more. Ruwenzori's body was bitten and bruised and torn. He died healthy, with a full stomach, on the edge of adulthood, on the edge of his range.

Kibale is providing the latest evidence that lethal violence, clearly witnessed in Gombe and strongly suspected in Mahale and Tai, is characteristic of chimpanzees across Africa. It looks like part of a species-wide pattern. In 1988 another apparently healthy chimpanzee died in the same border zone as Ruwenzori. At the time it seemed odd. We didn't know then where the border was. It seems less odd now. And three years after Ruwenzori's death, from only a couple of hundred meters away, we saw four Wantabu males stalk and charge a small Kanyawara party; but this time they caught no one. And then in 1994, one day after Kibale workers witnessed a violent attack on a male, tourists found the dead body of a prime male, probably the same victim. These Kibale attacks and killings have occurred in a forest where no artificial provisioning has taken place.

From the four research sites in the wild where chimpanzees live with neighboring groups, in work comprising altogether some one hundred years of organized field study, scientists have so far witnessed the extinction of two entire ape communities, certainly one and most likely both at the hands of their ape neighbors. In all four places the pattern appears to be the same. The male violence that surrounds and threatens chimpanzee communities is so extreme that to be in the wrong place at the wrong time from the wrong group means death.

The killer ape has long been part of our popular culture: Tarzan had to escape from the bad apes, and King Kong was a murderous gorilla-like monster. But before the Kahama observations, few biologists took the idea seriously. The reason was simple. There was so little evidence of animals killing members of their own species that biologists used to think animals killed each other only when something went wrong—an accident, perhaps, or unnatural crowding in zoos. The idea fit with the theories of animal behavior then preeminent, theories that saw animal behavior as designed by evolution for mutual good. Darwinian natural selection was a filter supposed to eliminate murderous violence. Killer apes, like killers in any animal species, were merely a novelist's fantasy to most scientists before the 1970s.

And so the behavior of people seemed very, very different from that of other animals. Killing, of course, is a typical result of human war, so one had to presume that humans somehow broke the rules of nature. Still, war must have come from somewhere. It could have come, for example, from the evolution of brains that happened to be smart enough to think of using tools as weapons, as Konrad Lorenz argued in his famous book, On Aggression, published in 1963.

However it may have originated, more generally war was seen as one of the defining marks of humanity: To fight wars meant to be human and apart from nature. This larger presumption was true even of nonscientific theories, such as the biblical concept of an original sin taking humans out of Eden, or the notion that warfare was an idea implanted by aliens, as Arthur C. Clarke imagined in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In science, in religion, in fiction, violence and humanity were twinned.

The Kahama killings were therefore both a shock and a stimulus to thought. They undermined the explanations for extreme violence in terms of uniquely human attributes, such as culture, brainpower, or the punishment of an angry god. They made credible the idea that our warring tendencies go back into our prehuman past. They made us a little less special.

And yet science has still not grappled closely with the ultimate questions raised by the Kahama killings: Where does human violence come from, and why? Of course, there have been great advances in the way we think about these things. Most importantly, in the 1970s, the same decade as the Kahama killings. a new evolutionary theory emerged, the selfish-gene theory of natural selection, variously called inclusive fitness theory, sociobiology, or more broadly, behavioral ecology. Sweeping through the halls of academe, it revolutionized Darwinian thinking by its insistence that the ultimate explanation of any individual's behavior considers only how the behavior tends to maximize genetic success: to pass that individual's genes into subsequent generations. The new theory, elegantly popularized in Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, is now the conventional wisdom in biological science because it explains animal behavior so well. It accounts easily for selfishness, even killing. And it has come to be applied with increasing confidence to human behavior, though the debate is still hot and unsettled. In any case, the general principle that behavior evolves to serve selfish ends has been widely accepted; and the idea that humans might have been favored by natural selection to hate and to kill their enemies has become entirely, if tragically, reasonable.

Those are the general principles, and yet the specifics are lacking. Most animals are nowhere near as violent as humans, so why did such intensely violent behavior evolve particularly in the human line? Why kill the enemy, rather than simply drive him away? Why rape? Why torture and mutilate? Why do we see these patterns both in ourselves and chimpanzees? Those sorts of questions have barely been asked, much less addressed.

Because chimpanzees and humans are each other's closest relatives, such questions carry extraordinary implications, the more so because the study of early human ancestry, unfolding in a fervor as we approach the century's end, is bringing chimpanzees and humans even closer than we ever imagined. Three dramatic recent discoveries speak to the relationship between chimpanzees and humans, and all three point in the same direction: to a past, around 5 million years ago, when chimpanzee ancestors and human ancestors were indistinguishable.

First, fossils recently dug up in Ethiopia indicate that over 4.5 million years ago there walked across African lands a bipedal ancestor of humans with a head strikingly like a chimpanzee's.

Second, laboratories around the world have over the last decade demonstrated chimpanzees to be genetically closer to us than they are even to gorillas, despite the close physical resemblance between chimpanzees and gorillas.

And third, both in the field and in the laboratory, studies of chimpanzee behavior are producing numerous, increasingly clear parallels with human behavior. It's not just that these apes pat each other on the hand to show affection, or kiss each other, or embrace. Not just that they have menopause, develop lifelong friendships, and grieve for their dead babies by carrying them for days or weeks. Nor is it their ability to do sums like 5 plus 4, or to communicate with hand signs. Nor their tool use, or collaboration, or bartering for sexual favors. Nor even that they hold long-term grudges, deliberately hide their feelings, or bring rivals together to force them to make peace.

No, for us the single most gripping set of facts about chimpanzee behavior is what we have already touched on: the nature of their society. The social world of chimpanzees is a set of individuals who share a communal range; males live forever in the groups where they are born, while females move to neighboring groups at adolescence; and the range is defended, and sometimes extended with aggressive and potentially lethal violence, by groups of males related in a genetically patrilineal kin group.

What makes this social world so extraordinary is comparison. Very few animals live in patrilineal, male-bonded communities wherein females routinely reduce the risks of inbreeding by moving to neighboring groups to mate. And only two animal species are known to do so with a system of intense, male-initiated territorial aggression, including lethal raiding into neighboring communities in search of vulnerable enemies to attack and kill. Out of four thousand mammals and ten million or more other animal species, this suite of behaviors is known only among chimpanzees and humans.

Humans with male-bonded, patrilineal kin groups? Absolutely. Male bonded refers to males forming aggressive coalitions with each other in mutual support against others—Hatfields versus McCoys, Montagues versus Capulets, Palestinians versus Israelis, Americans versus Vietcong, Tutsis versus Hutus; Around the world, from the Balkans to the Yanomamo of Venezuela, from Pygmies of Central Africa to the T'ang Dynasty of China, from Australian aborigines to Hawaiian kingdoms, related men routinely fight in defense of their group. This is true even of the villages labeled by anthropologists as “matrilineal” and “matrilocal,” where inheritance (from male to male) is figured out according to the mother's line, and where women stay in their natal villages to have children—such villages operate socially as subunits of a larger patrilineal whole. In short, the system of communities defended by related men is a human universal that crosses space and time, so established a pattern that even writers of science fiction rarely think to challenge it.

When it comes to social relationships involving females, chimpanzees and humans are very different. That's unsurprising. Discoveries in animal behavior since the 1960s strongly suggest that animal societies are adapted to their environments in exquisitely detailed ways, and obviously the environments of chimpanzees and humans are a study in contrast. But this just emphasizes our puzzle. Why should male chimpanzees and humans show such similar patterns?

Is it chance? Maybe our human ancestors lived in societies utterly unlike those of chimpanzees. Peaceful matriarchies, for example, somewhat like some of our distant monkey relatives. And then, by a remarkable quirk of evolutionary coincidence, at some time in prehistory human and chimpanzee social behaviors converged on their similar systems for different, unrelated reasons.

Or do they both depend on some other characteristic, like intelligence? Once brains reach a certain level of sophistication, is there some mysterious logic pushing a species toward male coalitionary violence? Perhaps, for instance, only chimpanzees and humans have enough brainpower to realize the advantages of removing the opposition.

Or is there a long-term evolutionary inertia? Perhaps humans have retained an old chimpanzee pattern which, though it was once adaptive, has now acquired a stability and life of its own, resistant even to new environments where other forms of society would be better.

Or are the similarities there, as we believe, because in spite of first appearances, similar evolutionary forces continue to be at work in chimpanzee and human lineages, maintaining and refining a system of intergroup hostility and personal violence that has existed since even before the ancestors of chimpanzees and humans mated for the last time in a drying forest of eastern Africa around 5 million years ago? If so, one must ask, what forces are they: What bred male bonding and lethal raiding in our forebears and keeps it now in chimpanzees and humans? What marks have those ancient evolutionary forces forged onto our twentieth-century psyches? And what do they say about our hopes and fears for the future?

These problems prowl at the heart of this book, and they are gripping enough. But they are made all the more curious by one strange, wonderful discovery of the last two decades. We have seen that chimpanzees and humans share, with each other but with no other species, a uniquely violent pattern of lethal intergroup aggression visited by males on neighboring communities, and we know that one possible explanation is inertia. As we will show in later chapters, the same applies to other patterns of violence, such as rape and battering. But one final fact destroys the theory that chimpanzees and humans share this appalling legacy merely by virtue of having shared a common ancestor who once behaved in the same unpleasant way. We know that inertia fails to explain similarities because chimpanzees have a sister species: the bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee. Chimpanzees and bonobos both evolved from the same ancestor that gave rise to humans, and yet the bonobo is one of the most peaceful, unaggressive species of mammals living on the earth today.

Bonobos are critical to the vision we will develop in this book, and they are fascinating especially because of their remarkable females, who are in several ways more humanlike than female chimpanzees. Bonobos present an extraordinary counterpoint to chimpanzees, and they offer a vision of animals unlike any that we have been familiar with in the past. They have evolved ways to reduce violence that permeate their entire society. More clearly than any mere theory could, they show us that the logic linking chimpanzees and humans in an evolutionary dance of violence is not inexorable.

Bonobos, however, appeared late in the evolutionary timetable—just as they appeared late in Western science, and as they will appear late in our book. To understand how bonobos have changed the system, we must first understand the system. Still, bear in mind as we explore the patterns shared by chimpanzees and humans that the dark side will eventually be lightened by a strange species that wasn't even known seventy years ago, and wasn't watched until twenty-two years ago.

For the moment, our immediate journey from past to present covers more familiar ground. Surely we all know what chimpanzees are. They're the species so like us that we ask them to test vaccines for us, check the safety of space flight, or pose with us for photographs when we want to make fun of ourselves. Our closest relatives.

But what does that mean? Just how close are they?

© 1996 Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson

Houghton Mifflin

Notes from Xah Lee

This is chapter one of the book Demonic Males (Apes and the Origins of Human Violence) , by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson. Buy at amazon

The original source of the text is from

Richard W Wrangham (born 1948) is a primatologist.

The annotations on this page are added by Xah Lee in 2005.