Primate Archeology  & Chimpanzee Education


The Review of Primate Archeology by Michael Haslam et al in the July 16, 2009 issue of Nature pages 339-44 really stimulated my imagination.  Beginning in the early 21st century ancient primate campsites and nut shell middens with associated stone anvils and hammers (hopefully not attributable to humans) have been described and dated—the start of a synthesis of archeology and primatology.


First, to primate archeologists: make your writing about chimpanzees potentially comprehensible to educated chimpanzees.  As a child I learned from our family physician to make my conversation as comprehensible as possible to all listeners (I don’t always succeed) because after examining me as a patient he always addressed me directly and made his remarks understandable not only to my listening mother but also to me..


Second, you may ask how do you propose that educated chimpanzees might come about?  So for practicing primatologists: I suggest enrolling some young chimpanzees already somewhat adept at sign language in a school for deaf children.  If such chimpanzees became literate and had already read perhaps Kipling’s Jungle Book and E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, he/she would be fascinated by chimpanzee archeology.  Why not make the archeologist’s report appropriate for both him/her and humans?  When such a chimpanzee was interviewed through a sign language interpreter by Rush Limbaugh (or equivalent), ample empathy between chimpanzees and humanity would be demonstrated, greatly enhancing the preternatural educational experience for Rush (or equivalent) and the TV audience.


Since I started writing this in August 2009, I have come across some details about  Nim Chimsky, a chimpanzee who lived from 1973 to 2000 adopted in infancy by Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University.  Terrace’s purpose was to shed some light on linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky about the uniqueness of brain circuitry of humans that foster our ability to acquire grammar and syntax—hence Nim’s name.  It was known that a few primates had already learned some sign language.  Nim lived five years in human households with caretakers who had some rudimentary signing ability and learned only 120 words and never managed to put sentences together.  Terrace published the negative linguistic results in Science in 1979.  Nim lived the last twenty-two years of his life in primate centers.    An interview of  Herbert Terrace by Jascha Hoffman was published in Nature 24 July 2011 page 173.  Is this evidence enough to preclude better success with sign language in chimpanzees regularly exposed to deaf mute children?   This will never happen for various reasons logistic and ethical—Noam Chomsky and Rush Limbaugh are off the hook.


Mankind urgently needs to be just one tribe.  Should we make a special status for at least our closest animal relatives as they (and we) become eligible?  I am aware that chimpanzees may not be educable to this extent.  Science fiction does have a place, however.  (Helen Keller would have especially empathized with unique chimpanzees, and the chimpanzees would have to have received an explanation of Helen’s disabilities.)  For more medical science fiction see An Innovative Treatment for Emphysema and An April Fools Day Health column on .


John A. Frantz, MD     telephone 608 325 3242

812 22nd Avenue,  revised  July 26, 2011.

Monroe, WI 53566-1672