Anthropology P380: Comparing chimp and human foragers

Comparisons between chimp and human foraging: which traits are uniquely human?

 Chimp  Human foragers
 Some variation by habitat, but in general EAT fruits, leaves, stems (80-90%), some insects, honey, small animals  Huge habitat range, and important variation in % meat; eat as many fruits, tubers, greens as are available/ are necessary (up to 70%), some insects, kill both small & large animals
 TOOLS to acquire foods:

sticks, termite wands, sponges, cracking stones

 TOOLS to acquire foods: digging tools hunting equipment, carrying devices, cracking stones, butchery knives

TOOLS to process foods: cooking equipment, grinding stones, butchery knives, storage... note that food is not accumulated among many tropical foraging groups... this is more typical of higher latitudes/more seasonal environments

labor: all ages forage for themselves, males do most hunting, all have same range of tool-use & feeding, though females spend more time regularly feeding on insects; females may be more dependent on tools to acquire nutrient-rich but expensive foods (insects, nuts) labor: females do most of "gathering", and food preparation; men hunt, snare, collect honey and sometimes plant foods too; children play & help

role of the "grandmother" is an interesting one!

 eat on-the-spot

meat is shared in group according to social dynamics; nuts and some insects and fruits shared between mother and child

 delayed consumption (some foods "snacked on" where found, but many foods carried "home" to share), social sharing & long-term, long-distance reciprocity are essentially institutionalized and critical to survival for many groups

What are the advantages/disadvantages of food sharing?

Short video of !Kung San (Richard Lee) illustrates the folks you are studying the nutrition of, as Richard Lee knew them during his research in the 1960s and 70s... Note that there is a current argument among anthropologists about the extent to which any human society today can be described as "hunter-gatherer" since they have all been emeshed in the world economy for hundreds of years (read about this debate in the Kelly chapter and the article by John Yellen). Accepting that, we can still learn alot about the economic and nutritional challenges of foraging for wild foods by studying peoples like the !Kung (Botswana/Namibia) or the Hadza (Tanzania) without pretending that they are "primitive."

Short video of Tai Forest Chimpanzees (C. Boesch and H. Ascherman-Boesh) illustrates the wide range of tools these chimps use, their ability to learn how to crack various nuts using hammers and anvils, and their complex cooperative hunting behaviors. Meat is shared, not just among the hunters, but widely among other members of the chimp social group. This is also discussed in their article, on e-reserves for you.

Refer to the article about chimp hunting at Gombe by Craig Stanford, which you can read online, to learn about hunting patterns at another site.

So far we have compared primates and humans physiologically and in broad nutritional terms. Today we are going to look more closely at BEHAVIORAL comparisons, specifically at issue of foraging for plant and animal foods, focused on our closest living relative, the chimpanzee.

Two species of chimp survive in Africa today, the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes; 3 subspecies) and the bonobo (Pan paniscus).


All chimps depend upon fruits of trees, shrubs, and terrestrial herbs, and the leaves and stems of herbaceous plants to survive, though bonobos depend more upon terrestrial herbaceous vegetation (THV) than common chimps do. Compared to bonobos, common chimps also eat more honey, sap, and many types of insects and bird eggs when they can get them.

Chimps also hunt small mammals. We will watch a video example of the hunting techniques in West Africa (Tai Forest). Below is a graph from an article about chimp hunting at Gombe by Craig Stanford, which you can read online! Do you notice any differences between the west African chimps and the east African chimps?


Many chimp foods can only be acquired by learning special techniques, such as tool use, to find and access them, and these learned behaviors vary from population to population. Now that the different subspecies of chimps are isolated, geographically, from each other, with overlapping, but distinctive sets of foraging behaviors.

Methods to assess chimp (any primate's) diet include:

  • % of time spent feeding on a particular food item
  • amount of food ingested (difficult to ascertain and rarely measured)
  • analysis of % of fecal materials

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Last updated: 12 February 2004

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