A recent study in the American Journal of Primatology examined chimp attacks on humans in Guinea, West Africa. There were not many — only 11 attacks, all non-fatal, between 1995 and 2009. Because chimps are often subject to human predation and eaten as bushmeat, one might expect that such attacks would be followed by swift retribution. This did not in fact occur, primarily because of the local peoples’ totem beliefs:
All families interviewed had at least one family member with chimpanzee as their totem, and this influenced their general attitudes toward chimpanzees and their conservation. People drew on their traditional totemic beliefs to explain why chimpanzees were respected, protected, and could not be hurt. Two out of five families explained that they did not commit revenge killings on chimpanzees for this reason.
If the authors (Kimberly Hocking and colleagues) are using “totem” in the traditional Durkheimian sense — which is based on the beliefs of Aborigines in Australia, this means that some people in Guinea identify chimpanzees as spiritual kin who offer them protection and guidance.
I rather like this and it is easy to see how chimps — more than any other species — could be seen as kin, even if one does not know about or believe in evolution. Chimps are of course our closest phylogenetic relatives, having shared a common ancestor with humans approximately 6 million years ago.
This close relationship is on full display in Jeffrey Kluger’s recent Time Magazine story, Inside the Minds of Animals, which features a stunning photo of Kanzi the bonobo chimp on the cover: