To see any of the apes in the wild would be a big deal. In some ways, the others are more appealing; the huge but (relatively) gentle gorilla, the mournful-looking orange Orang*, and the currently trendy pan-sexual bonobo all have a glamour to them which the chimp has rather lost, with the PG Tips ads and the years spent hanging out with Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson. I was even tempted to choose one of the gibbons; they may be ‘lesser’ apes, but they have a hell of an acrobatic way of getting through the trees.
In the end, though it had to be the Common Chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes.
(picture of chimp in the Gombe Reserve, Tanzania, from National Geographic).
The chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, of course. We’re equally closely related to common chimps and bonobos, but I picked P. troglodytes because – well, I don’t know, really.
One thing that’s not always appreciated about chimps is that if you ever see a trained chimp, in a Tarzan movie or an advert, it’s a juvenile. That’s because while a young chimp is cute, trainable and manageable, an adult male is 120 pounds of unpredictable, aggressive muscle. The one pictured above, named Frodo by Jane Goodall in one of her stupider moments, later stole, killed, and started to eat the child of a park employee. Tolkien would be proud.
Chimps aren’t nice. But they are clever. They crack nuts open with rocks, they strip leaves from twigs and use them to fish termites out of mounds, they hunt cooperatively, they’re political; you can even teach them some rudimentary language. They are nearly what we are; we are nearly what they are. They’re the point at which the mystery of evolution comes closest to home, and yet it’s still not easy to think of something like them turning into us.
Baby chimps look more human than the adults, with flatter faces:
At some stage in our evolution, the physical development of our heads became slowed or interrupted in some way. Desmond Morris called us ‘The Naked Ape’, but we’re also the baby-faced ape.
*isn’t it a pleasing coincidence that ‘orange’ and ‘orang’ are almost the same word?