Recent research suggests that troops of chimpanzees in Ivory Coast have embraced a military tactical approach by scaling hilltops for reconnaissance missions and advancing when the enemy is distant or outnumbered.

Sylvain Lemoine, a primatologist at the University of Cambridge and the lead author of the study, notes, “These military tactics that we see in humans – the importance of high ground – is maybe something that’s deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.”

It appears that chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives, share this ancient military wisdom. These fascinating insights into chimpanzee behavior shed light on the intricate nature of their strategic thinking and the evolutionary origins of such tactics.

Lemoine and his colleagues embarked on a study in the Taï National Park in Ivory Coast, where they observed two neighboring groups of chimpanzees.

Each group consisted of 30 to 40 adults and had separate territories with overlapping borders.

These chimpanzee troops, driven by the desire to expand their territories, often broke into smaller units to patrol borders and carry out reconnaissance missions. Their behavior mirrored the strategic thinking found in human warfare.

The researchers collected data from over 20,000 hours of recordings, revealing that chimpanzees were most likely to climb hills when they approached the edges of their territories.

Strikingly, they tended to rest quietly on hills near the borders, which enhanced their ability to hear the calls of nearby rival groups and gauge the defenses in the area.

The hilltop stops, researchers believe, were a critical reconnaissance tactic. After obtaining information from their vantage points, the chimpanzees would choose a route that minimized the risk of confrontations with rival groups.

If the enemy was distant or significantly outnumbered, the chimps typically advanced into rival territory. However, if the neighbors were nearby or present in numbers, the reconnaissance units opted for a strategic retreat.

The study unveiled some intriguing statistics: after a hilltop reconnaissance mission, the chimpanzees had a 40% chance of advancing into enemy territory when rivals were just 500 meters away, a 50% chance when they were one kilometer away, and a 60% chance when neighbors were three kilometers away. This strategic decision-making echoes the calculated approach adopted by human military commanders throughout history.

The behavior of these chimpanzees differentiates them from other animals that also seek higher ground to keep an eye out for predators. While meerkats and various species use elevated positions to sound the alarm if danger is spotted, the chimpanzees display a more intricate and strategic approach. They appear to anticipate potential conflicts, employ higher ground to assess the risk, and collectively decide on their next move.

According to Lemoine, the purpose behind these tactics is securing space and increasing territory. By pushing into the territory of rival groups, the entire troop benefits, as there is less competition for food and other vital resources. This underscores the strategic nature of their actions and reflects an underlying understanding of the advantages that high ground offers in warfare and territorial expansion.

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This article by Trinity Sparke was first published by One Green Planet on 8 November 2023. Image Credit :Lili Aini/Shutterstock.


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