Tag Archives: chimpanzee

A precursor of religion?

Animism is sometimes considered the earliest form of human religion. But what about before we started to think in terms of us vs. them (humans vs. animals), before we left the forests and evolved into our present forms? I’m currently reading The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology (2004) by William C. McGrew. The chapter on social culture mentions a very strange practice of male chimpanzees that borders on spirituality. This practice is called “waterfall displaying” or “waterfall dancing,” and it involves males rhythmically swaying or somersaulting through tree vines whenever in the presence of a waterfall. Jane Goodall suggests they might be doing it because they are awed by the waterfall itself. They also do this during thunderstorms. The book refers to it literally as a “rain dance.” Every culture has some sort of storm god, so I could see their actions possibly mirroring that of our ancient ancestors. It’s almost like some type of fearful reverence for the elements.

It’s important to point out that not all chimps live in territories near waterfalls, so this behavior is influenced by the environment. It’s the same for chimps of other communities. For example, the chimps of western Africa live in an environment that greatly differs from their eastern counterparts. Instead of living in dense jungle forest, they live in sparsely wooded grasslands. They exhibit very human-like behavior, such as sleeping in caves, lounging in springs, and (occasionally) hunting with spears. So, it’s possible that the environment played a role in the development of our spirituality.

This is a good article that describes the waterfall display and gives anecdotal evidence that “chimps have the capacity to contemplate and consider (even revere) both the animate and inanimate.”


I’m interested in hearing the opinion of those who study the history of religion.