“Teen” Chimps Searching for Themselves

Aaron Sandel is an anthropologist following and studying the Ngogo chimpanzees of Uganda’s Kibale National Park. He is particularly interested in the formative stress and journey of transition to adulthood; hence, he finds himself in the company of “teenage” chimps who are undergoing those very trials.

Benny, age 14, lay on his back, eyes gazing up. No one was around. He let out a soft cry, the kind a five-year-old might make upon realizing he’s lost. Was Benny lost? In a way; he’s 14, after all. The essence of adolescence is of being lost, finding oneself. The cultural anthropologist van Gennep, who famously described rites of passage across human groups, noted three common themes during adolescence: separation, transition, and re-integration. Adolescence is like traveling alone in the forest, he notes.

While many teenagers don’t literally wander through the forest alone, whimpering, this is exactly what Benny was doing. But this isn’t surprising, as Benny is a wild chimpanzee. And he wasn’t completely alone. I was watching him.

Benny, a large but not-quite-adult male chimpanzee. (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

I’m not claiming that Benny was experiencing teen angst. But being a fourteen-year-old male chimpanzee is no easy task. After having spent their whole lives traveling with their mother, young male chimpanzees must integrate themselves into the social world of adults. This means jockeying for a high position in the dominance hierarchy, trying to mate with females, and, importantly, forming friendships with other males. With the constant threat of being beaten or chased by bigger, older (and meaner) males, there must be the temptation to avoid it all and keep hanging around mom. But to succeed as a male chimpanzee, adolescents must incorporate themselves into adult life on their own terms. (Females also face quite the challenge—leaving their home in search of a completely new community, but my interests focus on males.)

The complex adult social world: two high-ranking males flank another male, reassuring him in a moment of chaos (Photo by Aaron Sandel)
The complex adult social world—two high-ranking males flank another male, reassuring him in a moment of chaos. (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

What does it mean to be a young-adult male? This is a guiding question for my dissertation (and being a 26-year-old male myself, it tends to crop up in other parts of my life). Given the importance of social bonds to chimpanzees, I’m focusing on friendship. Adult male chimpanzees form strong social bonds with one another—they spend a lot of time grooming and traveling together, they hunt and share meat, they cooperate to defend their territory from neighboring communities. There’s also the occasional hug or butt-slap to reassure one another. When are these friendships first forged? How might a young male benefit by having a friend?

To answer these questions, I spend my days trudging through the forest of Kibale National Park, Uganda, following adolescent and young-adult males. I record what they do and with whom they do it. I have been living in the forest for five months, with ten months to go. It’s a quiet and peaceful routine spending 11 hours per day with wild chimpanzees, but it’s not without challenges.

A selfie with Benny as we travel alone through the forest (Photo by Aaron Sandel)
A selfie with Benny as we travel alone through the forest. (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Following adolescent chimpanzees can be full of its own angst. At any moment they may decide to take off at a sprint to find a different group of chimps. Or, they may turn around in a thicket of thorns. And at that instant, it may start to rain. Under such circumstances, I am often flooded with a sadness and frustration reminiscent of my own teenage years. I may find myself, like Benny, letting out a soft cry here and there. After all, I am still learning to find my way through the forest, literally and metaphorically: I am an adolescent primatologist. But over the next year, I hope to transition to adulthood. I look forward to seeing Benny do the same.

Benny, 14, being groomed by his mother (Photo by Aaron Sandel)
Benny, being groomed by his mother, decides not to grow up quite yet. (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

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Meet the Author
I am a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Michigan. I write from Ngogo, in the center of Kibale National Park in Uganda, home to 200 chimpanzees, the subjects of my dissertation. A National Geographic Young Explorers grant in 2013 got me through the angst of finalizing a dissertation project. Now, I study angst, or at least the closest thing to it: friendship and the transition to adulthood in male chimpanzees. When I’m not focused on following a chimpanzee, my forest daydreams include opening a vegan burrito restaurant in a rural Ugandan village and making a documentary about an old fig tree.