We already know that humans aren’t the only species to mourn the dead. In the past, scientists have described apes, elephants, and even whales engaging in behavior that looks an awful lot like grieving, holding, or gathering around the body of a fallen animal. In our quest to better understand animal emotions, this feels like a powerful point of interspecies connection: They, like us, can form deep and lasting bonds; they, like us, can feel the loss of those bonds in a powerful way.
And now, for the first time, researchers have observed another species taking the mourning process a step further. In a paper published last week in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers described a chimpanzee conducting a very human-like death ritual: using tools to clean the bodies. As LiveScience explained:
There was a bit of commotion when a 9-year-old chimpanzee, Thomas, died at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia a few years ago. After Thomas succumbed to a lung infection, the other chimpanzees gathered around his body. Most were easily lured away by caretakers holding food. Except for Noel.
This 33-year-old chimpanzee had adopted Thomas four years earlier after his mother died … With the care of a mortician, Noel opened Thomas’ mouth with her hands. She took a grass tool and poked it between his teeth, seeming to examine and even taste the debris she flossed out.
Noel’s actions, the study authors argued, suggest that “the evolutionary origins of human death responses” may stretch back further than we thought: “Chimpanzees may form long-lasting social bonds that continue to influence their behavior once the bonding partner has died,” the study authors wrote. “Like humans, chimpanzees may not treat deceased conspecifics carelessly, but instead handle corpses in a socially meaningful way — i.e., as social beings instead of inanimate objects.” Which, in turn, means that our practice of caring for bodies after death — a custom that spans across cultures — may not be so uniquely human after all.