Chimp makes fire

“Chimpanzee fire” is a name given to bioluminescent fungus that grows in some of the forests chimps live; giving off an eerie green glow that might make it seem like the apes have cracked the secret to wildfire. But can chimps start real fires? In the wild, no; but Kanzi – a bonobo who has spent essentially his whole life with humans, and previously famous on this blog for learning how to make stone tools – has been trained to use matches.

I can already hear you dismissing his achievement. “Surely matches make it easy” I hear you say. Don’t be so rash to ignore this. Aside from the matches he receives no outside help. He identifies and gathers appropriate kindling all by himself, breaks it to make it burn easier and builds a good fire before striking a match – using incredible levels of dexterity – and lighting it. Although I did tell a little lie, he receives some help: his keepers give him marshmellows. Which he spears on a stick and cooks on the fire! Just watch the video below it’s very impressive.

The clip itself is taken from Monkey Planet, a recent BBC documentary about (contrary to what the title might suggest) apes, monkeys and prosimians around the world. It’s an excellent show that really captures just how innovative our closest relatives can be. If you have a chance to see it I would highly recommend it. A couple of episodes are still up on iPlayer (including the one with Kanzi), if you can access that.


10 thoughts on “Chimp makes fire

  1. Most of us humans learn how to do things from other humans, not innovation. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time. That is what I think has been demonstrated with Kanzi. Bonobos can learn quite a few things. I think what is most remarkable here is that he has overcome his fear of fire and that he has learned to test those hot marshmallows first before just biting into a sweet treat, which shows some ability to not be too impulsive. Now the big question is, can he pass on what he has learned? Our ape cousins don’t seem as good as we are at actively teaching others, but if any of them would do it, I’d bet on the bonobos.

    • When apes learn they don’t seem so great at teaching or mimicking others. For the most part the “teacher” is just drawing attention to a problem, the items needed to solve it and the result of solving it. The “student” then reinvents the method, after having noticed there is a problem there to solve.

  2. I, too, was most impressed by the idea that he’d overcome (what I’d assume is a natural) fear of fire and learned to use a “dangerous” tool to accomplish a task. I wonder if they’re very careful about his access to matches, least he begin to explore the world of, “What else can I set on fire?” 🙂

  3. Wow, this is amazing. I was also impressed that he tested the temperature of the marshmallows with his lips before taking a bite, not that the entire process wasn’t impressive.

    • The video Cynthia linked too is great; I think it shows an older attempt by Kanzi to make fire. He certainly seems a lot more cautious (plus when given some water to put out the fire, he tries to drink it instead)

      • Very interesting about his enjoying Quest For Fire and his want to build fires. It blows me away that he understands the cooking process. I want him on my next camping trip!

  4. Pingback: Could chimps take over the world? | EvoAnth

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