Tag Archives: ape

Why is humanity here? The stoned ape theory says: ‘drugs’

How we got to be here is one of humanity’s most enduring questions. And it comes in many layers: first in understanding how the Universe formed, then how life appeared on Earth, and how we, humans, specifically came to be. We don’t yet know for sure what the answers to this question are. We may never know for sure. But as always, we do have theories.

And one of them involves drugs. Image in the public domain.

Let’s focus, however, on how we came to be. Modern humans stand apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, indeed even from the rest of the primate family, due to our unique cognitive abilities. We can talk, we can do abstract thinking, we can imagine different scenarios, and solve the problems we face. We also have fancy thumbs and enough dexterity to create and use tools. But for the most part what makes us stand out is that, to the best of our knowledge, other animals simply can’t use their brains in the same way we do.

Does that make us the favorite sons and daughters? The pinnacle of evolution? There’s a certain haughty allure to that idea. But a more humbling theory, one I personally enjoy more, is that our ancestors were simply massive junkies — to the extent that they re-wired their brains. This is commonly known as the “Stoned Ape Theory”, although not by the one who first put it together.

So, are we the grandchildren of junkie apes? Naturally, we don’t know. But let’s see what the theory is all about.

Where it came from

First off, let’s get our vocabularies straight here. While known colloquially known as the Stoned Ape Theory, this is not a theory — it is a hypothesis. In science-speak, theories are ideas that have been repeatedly proven true and which have verifiable evidence to back them up. For example, we have a theory that evolution is a thing and it works over subsequent generations. McKenna’s idea has not been proven, and there isn’t direct evidence to support it. This isn’t necessarily to say that it’s wrong. All theories start out as hypotheses. But it does mean that we’re basically discussing some dude’s educated guess and not facts.

The theory has its roots in the book Food Of The Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, published by Terrence McKenna in 1992. McKenna was an American ethnobotanist, a branch of science that studies how different cultures or groups of people traditionally employed the plants in their environment for medical, cultural, or other applications. It’s a field that has given us the means to develop drugs and other useful compounds or processes in the past. He did quite a lot of academic work on the origins of shamanism which is still cited to this day.

McKenna was also a self-proclaimed mystic and a supporter of the use of naturally-occurring psychedelic plants. I don’t personally believe in the practical applications of mysticism — I don’t think a crystal healer will quartz your cancer away. But I can understand how someone whose job is to interact with traditional healers such as shamans can gain an affinity for it. After all, these roles maintained themselves throughout the centuries via the very strong, very transformative experiences they can offer. As a means of self-discovery or perhaps in support of mental health or subjective well-being, such experiences can hold value. He’s also the originator of the “novelty theory“.

I start with a description of the man himself because it’s important to note that he did achieve academic success and recognition in, perhaps, the same measure as he gained popularity for very pseudoscientific ideas. Now, a man’s character isn’t a reflection on his ability to be right or wrong — even a broken clock is right two times a day, and wrong the rest of the time. But McKenna is interesting particularly because of this juxtaposition between the provable and improbable in his work.

Ok so now let’s get to the meat and potatoes of this topic.

Mushroom dinner

Psilocybe cubensis, a psychedelic mushroom that takes a central part in McKenna’s hypothesis. Image credits Carlos De Soto Molinari / Flcikr.

The theory basically states that psychedelic mushrooms were the catalyst that helped our species arise from ancient hominids. In short, it says that psilocybin, the main active compound in ‘shrooms, altered the behavior of Homo erectus in ways that set them on an evolutionary path towards us, modern humans.

The long version is that, during the desertification of Africa (an event we know happened), our very ancient ancestors were forced to leave their traditional home — the canopy roofs sprawling across the continent. The increasingly dry climate meant that forests were dwindling, both in density and geographical spread, and could no longer support these populations; so they had to move in search of food.

At first, they lived as gatherers and scavengers, learning their way through the new, treeless environment they were thrust into — the savannah. Around the year 100,000 BCE, McKenna argues, Homo erectus came into contact with the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis and incorporated it into their diet. According to McKenna, insects were likely an important source of protein for these hominids, as they’re much easier to catch compared to other prey.

In the savannah, cow dung can serve as an important source of food for insects, so they tend to be attracted to them. P. cubensis also loves manure — it tends to grow in it. This would be the link tying Homo erectus to psilocybin; as they scavenged for insects, they saw these tasty-looking mushrooms, so they started eating those, too.

Ape together, stoned

Sustained intake of psilocybin, in McKenna’s theory, set our hominid ancestors on a path towards success. He explains that low levels of psilocybin improve vision clarity, making it easier to pick out edges and contours, specifically. This, he argues, would make the individuals who did eat the mushrooms better hunters, which would, in turn, give them an evolutionary edge over those who didn’t. More available food meant they had a higher social standing and better reproductive success.

Slightly higher doses would also help, he contends, as they lead to an increase in libido, higher levels of energy, and could potentially lead to erections in males — which would also lead to more offspring for those who consumed the mushrooms.

At yet higher doses still, McKenna adds, psilocybin would promote a sense of community, and maybe even group sex, by “dissolving boundaries” between group members. In an age well before paternity tests, he goes on to argue, this would lead to a greater sense of community as everyone was taking care of all the offspring. It would also promote genetic diversity, for obvious reasons. These higher doses would also promote the development of language and higher brain functions through the visions and other psychedelic effects they produce. Religion might also have been jump-started by this substance, due to its effects on our subjective perception of the ego.

The TL;DR of it all is that, in McKenna’s theory, our ancestors ate psychedelic mushrooms which made their brains act funny. This, in turn, led to the creation of art, religion, speech, and all the other traits that set us apart from the animal world.

Did they, really?

Great ape skeletons and a human skeleton (on the right) in the Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge. Image via Wikipedia.

There is definitely an allure behind the stoned ape theory; it’s a good story, and we like good stories. I think it’s a good, interesting story, at least. It also probably makes for a good point of discussions for college freshmen and other people the world over as they’re experimenting with their own psychedelics — which can’t but help. But is it true?

The main issue leveled at this hypothesis is that McKenna builds a series of assumptions on very shaky feet. Then he uses these assumptions as a starting point for other assumptions, similarly un-supported. For example, the whole of McKenna’s hypothesis relies on our ancestors finding and eating a certain mushroom, Psilocybe cubensis, in manure along the savannah. But P. cubensis is a species that favors hot and humid areas; savannahs are hot, but not humid. Still, we could probably substitute it for its relative species. P. azurescens, P. cyanescens, and P. allenii, for example, tend to favor the drier, Mediterranean climates.

In short, this example shows how McKenna tends to take bits of data that aren’t really proven to be true and kinda just roll with them. I’ll reiterate that this doesn’t mean his hypothesis can’t be true, but these arguments don’t go a long way to helping prove that it is true, either. And he keeps doing this, over and over, in the stoned ape theory.

He cites previous work to support his argument that psilocybin consumption increases visual acuity, but that paper didn’t find that such a compound actually makes you see more clearly. The paper reports that psilocybin changes perception, not that it makes it better or clearer. In fact, the authors explain that even at such low doses, the changes caused by the compound “may not be conducive to the survival of the organism” — which goes completely against McKenna’s conclusion that eating shrooms made early hominids better hunters.

It keeps going on like this. His idea that hallucinations prompted religion and speech, is again, not propped up by evidence, but an assumption. The idea that eating the mushrooms made males horny, even if true, doesn’t mean that it made them more successful in mating. God knows that if all it took was being horny, we’d all be getting laid hard. Hallucinating, also, doesn’t increase your likelihood of having sex.

I don’t mean to sound like I want to rip into McKenna — I really don’t. Personally, I find his hypothesis fascinating, and definitely worth a few chuckles if proven true. But that’s just the thing: the whole train of thought doesn’t really have evidence to back it up. Is it possible that the stoned ape theory is right? Definitely. Do I want it to be right? Completely. It would just be too delicious an irony that we only developed advanced math and other cutting-edge geekery because our ancestors spent their days tripping their fur off. It would be like the 60s on a much grander scale.

But can I, or anyone else, say for sure that it is? No. There’s nothing we know of that would mean it couldn’t happen, although parts of it seem improbable to say the least. But there’s also not enough here to explain reliably how it could happen, despite the fact that overall, it has a certain appeal.

McKenna’s story itself also tends to color how people view this hypothesis. Some will point to his academic success and invoke this as a sign that his work is reliable. Others point to his more exotic ideas, arguing that these discredit his works. I personally see both him and the stoned ape theory as very odd, in the sense that they’re distinct, they stand apart from their peers.

Someone who studies folk uses for plants and shamanism, even academically, must be willing to accept information acquired outside of normal academic processes. The conclusions we draw from this information must and will be tested, of course. But a certain willingness to entertain strange ideas is required in these fields that very often deal with traditions, stories, rituals, and myths told and retold over the centuries — not cold hard figures.

I think it’s possible that McKenna’s areas of interest, his academic work, and his personal experiences with psychedelics opened a more intuitive understanding of the topic — or at least, one that didn’t always fit into the rigorous demands of the scientific method. He may well have been seeing something we’re all missing, and he may have been right. He may also have been wrong. The saddest part of his legacy, I think, is that we’ll likely never know.

Scientists identify new species of truffle eaten by apes in Congo

Bonobos, an endangered great ape species only found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have inadvertently discovered a new species of truffle, according to a new study. Researchers believe that it could have significant culinary value and is also proof of the vast reserves of undescribed fungal diversity in the region.

Credit Flickr.

While truffles are commonly eaten by humans in high-end restaurants, they are also enjoyed by our closest relatives. Bonobos, which share 98.7% of our genetic makeup, regularly savor the truffle, named by the researchers as Hysterangium bonobo in honor of the monkeys that found it in the first place.

“Truffles aren’t just for gourmet chefs, they’re also for our closest relatives,” Matthew Smith, an associate professor in the University of Florida department of plant pathology and co-author of the paper, said in a statement. “There’s so much to learn about this system, and we’re just scratching the surface.”

Prized for their aromas, truffles are often essential elements of ecosystems, and H. bonobo makes no exception. It plays an important role in enabling trees to absorb nutrients from the soil and supports the diet of animals. Previous studies have reported bonobos eating truffles but this is the first to identify a specific species.

Local communities have long known of the existence of the truffle. They call it “simbokilo,” a Bantu name. The bonobos likely locate it by catching its smell floating through the air or by digging in the soil and sniffing their hands. The truffles are small enough to be eaten whole by the great apes and share features of those with high culinary value.

Alexander Georgiev, co-author of the study and a primatologist at Bangor University, gathered samples of the truffles after he observed a group of bonobos eating them in Congo’s Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve. He hoped a collaborator could identify the species, not knowing it was undescribed. While he had never seen bonobos freed on truffles, his team of field assistants instantly knew what was happening.

“It’s important to realize that even though this paper presents a ‘novel’ interaction and the description of a ‘new’ species for the Western scientific community, in reality, these are interconnected associations that have been known about for untold generations by the locals in the region,” added Todd Elliott, the study’s lead author, in a statement.

The study was published in the journal Mycologia.

Hainan gibbon female with infant. Credit: Jessica Bryant ZSL.

One of the world’s rarest mammals is disappearing from folklore

The Hainan gibbon — what is perhaps the rarest mammal in the world — is not only disappearing from China’s forests but also from folklore.

Hainan gibbon female with infant. Credit: Jessica Bryant ZSL.

Hainan gibbon female with infant. Credit: Jessica Bryant ZSL.

Most of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction, but for some this threat is far more immediate than for others. The Hainan gibbon is the world’s rarest ape, rarest primate, and quite possibly the rarest mammal species. It’s found only on one tropical island at the southern tip of China. Once numbering around 2,000 individuals in the 1950s, the Hainan gibbon underwent a severe decline due to habitat loss and hunting, with only an estimated 26 individuals remaining. Today, these apes are restricted to just two square kilometers of remnant rainforest in Bawangling National Nature Reserve on Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

Gibbons are small apes that live in the forests and can swing from tree to tree with remarkable dexterity and speed. Chinese culture has always cherished them, lending them an important place in Chinese folklore, particularly in the southern province of Hainan Island.

Unfortunately, not only is the Hainan gibbon (Nomascus hainanus) on the brink of extinction, its cultural existence is also eroding away, according to researchers working with the international conservation charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London).

The researchers, led by Dr. Samuel Turveys from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, conducted ethnographic interviews with locals across the Hainan gibbon’s historical range. The survey was meant to measure the locals’ “traditional ecological knowledge” — a sort of cultural wisdom about wildlife passed from generation to generation.

“In an era of satellite imaging and GPS-tracking, using ethnographic surveys for conservation science might seem esoteric. However, there is an urgent need to understand the relationship between threatened species and local communities, and traditional folklore can often provide invaluable insights to inform future conservation strategies,” Turveys said in a statement.

Researchers interviewed locals about their cultural knowledge of Hainan gibbons. Credit: Helen Nash / ZLS.

Researchers interviewed locals about their cultural knowledge of Hainan gibbons. Credit: Helen Nash / ZLS.

People who live in regions of Hainan where the gibbons used to live until very recently were still aware of the apes’ cultural significance. However, elsewhere, these animals are becoming increasingly forgotten. Disturbingly, any local communities who are now unaware of Hainan gibbon folklore still retain knowledge of how to hunt gibbons, even in areas where they had disappeared decades ago.

“Folklore and stories give us a connection to our natural world, no matter where we live. And many animals regularly feature in the news or on nature documentaries or in books. As the range of the Hainan gibbon has shrunk, the number of people encountering this enigmatic animal has decreased, so the frequency with which people recall them in stories also decreases,” Dr. Susan M Cheyne, Vice-Chair of IUCN’s Primate Specialist Group Section on Small Apes, told ZME Science.

“Myths, legends, and fables about animals are often the first encounter many people have with an animal, even if they may never see it in the wild. Keeping these stories alive ensures we maintain a link between people and animals, this is especially important for the Critically Endangered Hainan gibbon,” she added.

Whether we like or not, culture plays a major role in conservation efforts. For instance, people are far more inclined to take action by donating or supporting conservation efforts when a species they’re very culturally familiar with is threatened, even if they’ve never seen that animal in person in their lives. Think of lions, giraffes, and elephants. Bearing all of this in mind, conservation efforts shouldn’t ignore the cultural significance of a species — it might make all the difference.

“Ethnographic research is becoming increasingly recognized as important for primate conservation. If you know about something, you are more likely to have empathy and to therefore care about the fate of the animal. Loss of wildlife and habitat often goes hand in hand with the erosion of local cultures and traditions. Some options would be to curate a museum of stories about the Hainan gibbon, compile all the tales into a book and ensure that culture plays a role in conservation education and outreach,” Cheyne said.

“Our human culture is often linked to wildlife, no matter where we live, so we should all celebrate the stories we have. We often will have read fables and stories about animals as children, we need to keep these alive,” she concluded.

The findings appeared in the journal Open Science. 

Ancient molar (left) and canine (right) belonging to a yet unidentified ancient ape found in Germany. Credit: Naturhistorisches Museum Mainz.

Mysterious 9.7-million-year-old fossilized teeth likely belong to unknown ancient European primate

Ancient molar (left) and canine (right) belonging to a yet unidentified ancient ape found in Germany. Credit: Naturhistorisches Museum Mainz.

Ancient molar (left) and canine (right) belonging to a yet unidentified ancient ape found in Germany. Credit: Naturhistorisches Museum Mainz.

In a former riverbed of the Rhine, near the town of Eppelsheim, a region famous for a treasure trove of fossils, German scientists found two fossilized teeth with contradictory features. The molar and left canine belonging to the same individual are nearly ten million years old and bear a resemblance to hominin species such as Australopithecus afarensis. The conundrum lies in the fact that A. afarensis is no more than 3 million years old and no human ancestor was found in Europe earlier than 100,000 years ago. This puts the entire debate under a whole new light.

The real planet of the apes

The findings were made in 2016 but the team led by Herbert Lutz, a paleontologist at the Mainz Natural History Museum in Germany, delayed publishing due to the controversial nature of the two fossilized teeth. What’s certain, says Lutz, is that the teeth dated to 9.7 million years ago belong to a primate and signify “the northernmost occurrences of Miocene primates in Europe.”

“Both teeth, the crowns of an upper left canine and an upper right first molar, are exceptionally well preserved and obviously come from the same body of unknown sex. Their sedimentological environment and the accompanying faunal elements point to an age shortly before the Mid-Vallesian crisis at ca. 9.7 Ma. While the molar shares characters with various other taxa, the canine reveals intriguingly potential hominin affinities: its lingual outline is clearly diamond-shaped; its ratio of lingual height / mesiodistal length is within the range of Australopithecus afarensis, Ardipithecus ramidus, Ardipithecus kadabba, and females of Pan troglodytes,” the authors reported in a paper, which appeared in pre-print. 

In the aftermath of the discovery, some have haphazardly painted this whole event into something far more spectacular than it really is, which in reality, is just ambiguous at this point. For instance, during a press conference announcing the discovery, the mayor of Mainz said he doesn’t want to “over-dramatize it” but “we shall have to start rewriting the history of mankind after today.” One can only wonder what the fine mayor’s view of overly dramatic looks like in this case.

The dig site in Eppelsheim. Credit: Bastian Lischewsky

The dig site in Eppelsheim. Credit: Bastian Lischewsky

Scientists are, of course, far more reserved. Despite the resemblances to hominin groups, it’s far likelier, as Lutz and colleagues themselves reported, that the molar and canine belong to a broader group called hominoids. In other words, “apes”.

As far back as 12 million years ago, Europe was a sort of an ape paradise. There’s no doubt that apes originated in Africa, or that our more recent evolution happened there, but up to eight million years ago they also flourished in Europe around the Mediterranean when climate change forced these populations to gradually disappear.

One of these apes was Oreopithecus, first unearthed in the 19th century in Italy. Though it does not belong to our branch of the ape evolutionary tree, Oreopithecus, one of the last surviving species from this ‘golden age’ of European apes, oddly looked a lot like an early member of our lineage. Perhaps, Eurasian primate bearing these teeth and its distant African relatives encountered similar environmental pressure, independently leading to very similar tooth configurations. There are many examples of convergent evolution, after all.

Maybe it’s not even an ape

The isolated discovery of two teeth, which are far less interesting than most other body parts such as a femur or skull, can’t “rewrite history”. However, it’s fascinating that ancient apes could have lived this far north in Europe, but speculating any further is just thoughtless sensationalism. What’s more, the fossils might not even belong to an ape.

Speaking to National Geographic,  Bence Viola, who is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto and an authority on the teeth of extinct human relatives, says the fossils likely belong to some pliopithecoid species — an extinct superfamily of catarrhine primates that inhabited Asia and Europe during the Miocene. Pliopithecoids are very far away, evolutionary speaking, from humans, having diverged from the common ancestors of Old World monkeys and apes long before the two branches split.

“I think this is much ado about nothing,” Viola said. “The second tooth (the molar), which they say clearly comes from the same individual, is absolutely not a hominin, [and] I would say also not a hominoid.”

In other words, the teeth might belong to some primate species which is less related to modern humans than a baboon. However, the German scientists are still working on their paper, so the last word may yet to come.

“Hopefully, in one or two years, we’ll know a lot more about what we’ve got on our hands,” Lutz told ResearchGate. “It’s definitely a fantastic, exciting story.”

A wild-born orangutan has learned to communicate like a human

A female orangutan born in the wild has learned to use her tongue to whistle and produce vowel sounds just like a human – suggesting that all giant apes are able to do so. Although orangutans are known to create diverse vocalisations, what Tilda can do is unique.

Meet Tilda, the first ever orangutan to make human vocalisations. She can click her tongue producing two calls which were never before observed in any apes, and can create sounds similar to our pronounciation of voiceless consonants (something present in several African languages). Tilda can also whistle.

It’s not clear how she learned to do all this, but it’s believed that it happened because she worked in the “entertainment business”. Tilda’s vocalisations have now been described in a paper in PLOS ONE. She uses these signals to ask for more food, even clapping and pointing in the direction of food. Biologist Adriano Lameira from the University of Amsterdam, explains:

“They are what we would call attention gathering or come-hither calls, which indeed are mostly used when the human caretakers are handling food,” Lameira said. “I would translate them into, ‘Come here and give that food to me!”

It was previously believed that apes don’t have enough control on their vocal structures to emit human-like sounds, but this clearly shows that the theory is wrong.

Image: Archive Cologne Zoo

“The extent of motoric control that great apes exert over their vocal structures, both laryngeal and supra-laryngeal, may be much higher than hitherto presumed,” the authors write in PLOS ONE. The notion that great ape calls are hard-wired and inflexible is likely an artefact of our very poor understanding of the call communication of these species, rather than that their calls are factually hard-wired or inflexible,” Lameira added.

Interestingly, this may not only help us understand if and how apes can speak, but it can also help us understand where our own speech originated from. By further studying how great apes use these sounds, we may finally understand “the conditions that brought together for the first time the two basic building blocks of speech,” as the researchers write.

“The evolutionary origins of speech remain obscure. Recently, it was proposed that speech derived from monkey facial signals which exhibit a speech-like rhythm of ~5 open-close lip cycles per second. In monkeys, these signals may also be vocalized, offering a plausible evolutionary stepping stone towards speech.”

Journal Reference: Adriano R. Lameira, Madeleine E. Hardus, Adrian M. Bartlett, Robert W. Shumaker, Serge A. Wich, Steph B. J. Menken. Speech-Like Rhythm in a Voiced and Voiceless Orangutan Call. Published: January 08, 2015DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0116136

Apes comfort each other ‘like humans’

Not as unique as we thought

An “emotionally competent” young ape rushes to hug another juvenile that has just been attacked.

I think the idea of animals doing something “like humans” is pretty outdated as it is – so many things that we thought were unique to us have been proven to be if not common than at least… not unique. Here’s just a short list of those things (you can easily find more):

Again, this is just a short list, but I hope I’ve made my point. Now, researchers working at an African sanctuary have found that young bonobos cuddle and calm their friends when they went through a trauma.

Socially competent bonobos

'Emotionally competent' bonobos were more likely to console other apes

‘Emotionally competent’ bonobos were more likely to console other apes

Researchers capture footage showing “emotionally competent” young apes rushing to hug other juveniles that were screaming after being attacked. Bonobos who were more empathic were more likely to jump and help relief other members.

“It’s almost as if one first needs to have one’s own emotional house in order before one is ready to visit the emotional house of another.”, said Prof Frans de Waal from Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta. “This is true for children, and apparently also for bonobos.”

To make this even more interesting, Dr Clay also oberved another interesting aspect. The Olola ya Bonoboo sanctuary is home to many bonobo victims of bushmeat hunting – apes which were taken from their families at a very young age. These youngsters are cared for by humans, and after what usually takes a few years of rehabilitation, they are transfered to an enclosure with another group of bonobos. Dr. Clay reported that just like human orphans, orphan bonobos have a much harder time managing their emotions.

After a fight, Dr Clay explained, these orphan apes “would be very upset, screaming for minutes”.

“Mother-reared juveniles would recover and snap out of it in seconds,” she added.

Over 370 post-distress interactions were observed; some 318 cause by fighting and 55 that were caused by throwing tantrums. Researchers found that typically, the better a bonobo was at controlling his own emotions, the more likely he was to console his friends – a trend which is also observed in humans.


Apparently, this news caused quite a stir, and many people were surprised that apes behave in such a “human like” fashion.

“But they are our closest relatives, so personally I would argue that the best guess of their emotions is that they’d be the same as our own in a similar situation.”, explained Richard Byrne, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of St Andrews.