Our Closest Cousins
Origins of Us - Brains
At Edinburgh Zoo, researchers have been studying chimpanzees, to get insights into the origins of human intelligence, Chimps and humans share a common ancestor, going back some seven million years ago. So, if we compare ourselves with chimpanzees, then we can assume that any behaviours we share may have been there in our ancestors, whereas any differences have arisen on the way to becoming modern species.
Like us, the chimps live in a tight-knit social group. But the social politics here are being thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a new group from the Netherlands. Betsy Herrelko is studying how they react, Betsy "It looks like there's a little bit of a face-off between the dominant males from each group.". The Dutch chimpanzees quickly assess who's who in the Edinburgh group, working out whom they can challenge and whom they should suck up to.
In this changing power structure, making and keeping political allies is crucial. Dr Roberts "So is it really important for the dominant chimp to have alliances, to have friends in the group?" Betsy "It's very much like our poltical system, you have to play the field and see who can be you ally and benefit you in some ways, and when you might need to drop them."
And if you're clever enough to work out whom you can bully, and whom you need to run away from you can work out other things, like how to retrieve an apple from the other side of the fence.
And it's mental flexibility like this that enabled our ancestors to adapt to their changing environment.
Looking at the behaviours that we share with chimpanzees, it's clear that we've inherited cunning brains from our ancestors. We are social animals, we have this acute sense of political awareness. We understand what others are doing and where they fit in, in the social system, and we use that to our advantage.
But we differ from chimpanzees in a very important way. Our ancestors developed a mental ability so useful that it's written into our faces today.