Monday, August 12, 2002


The Wife Beaters of Kibale
The author of a new book offers a glimpse of evolution in action, as chimps in Uganda take up arms
Sunday, Aug. 11, 2002

You reach Harvard University's biological anthropology department by climbing five flights of fusty wooden stairs in the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Mass. It's an old building, haunted by the remnants of long lost tribes and the ghosts of an era when anthropologists thought nothing of collecting the paraphernalia of ancestor worship, not to mention the bones of the ancestors themselves. But it's not bones that have brought me to the Peabody today. I've made the climb to meet Carole Hooven, a young graduate student in biological anthropology, and Richard Wrangham, one of the world's leading experts on chimpanzee behavior. They want to show me a collection of what look like sturdy but quite ordinary sticks.

[Photo] Dr. Richard Wrangham and Carol Hooven study weapons used by chimps

These lengths of wood have a special meaning for Hooven and for science, especially the stick that's shaped like a divining rod with a crook at the end. The last time she saw it, in January 1999 in Uganda's Kibale forest, it was in the hands of a big male chimp called Imoso who was using it to beat mercilessly a female named Outamba. As a woman, Hooven felt sick at heart at the violence directed at the smaller chimp. But as a scientist, it exhilarated her. She had never read about anything like this. Trembling, she rushed back to camp to report to Wrangham. He listened in silence and then shook her hand. This was a historic moment. While there are a few scattered accounts of chimps wielding sticks against prey or predators, no one before had ever seen a wild animal repeatedly, unambiguously—and with malice and forethought—use a tool as a weapon against its own kind....