Bonobo gathers sticks, builds fire, toasts and eats marshmallows

Well, to end the week we have Kanzi, a famous captive bonobo, collecting sticks, building a fire, lighting it, skewering a pile of marshmallows on a stick, toasting them, and eating them. This is a remarkable behavior; as NBC News reports:

Kanzi, a great ape renowned for his intelligence, demonstrated his fire-building and marshmallow-toasting skills on camera for a new Animal Planet show, “Primates: Clash of Kingdoms.” His deliberation and dexterity may surprise even bonobo lovers — Planet of the Apes, anyone?

In the video, a clip from the final episode of which first appeared in a BBC documentary on primates, Kanzi the bonobo collects a pile of dry brush, lights it with a match, and roasts a few skewered marshmallows to — well, it’s not quite a golden brown, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

Kanzi’s performance sparked awe on social media. “Every good psychology student knows who Kanzi is, but I didn’t know he could toast marshmallows!” one viewer tweeted after seeing the show. Others expressed skepticism, suggesting only a human in a bonobo suit could accomplish the task.

Now it’s not clear whether he’d seen this behavior before, although the Wikipedia article about the animal, as well as a piece in The Smithsonian, suggests that it occurred de novo after the chimp had made symbols for “fire” and “marshmallow” and was given matches and the confection. The article also gives other examples of Kanzi’s intelligence, like learning to play Pac-Man.

I’m not convinced that chimps, or any animals, has used sign language to produce real semantic language, but it’s not beyond the pale that Kanzi, by observing fires and matches, learned this behavior. As for the marshmallows, well, I don’t know, but he should have charred them completely, for that’s the best way to cook them.

To see 11 more pictures of Kanzi making his treats (are S’Mores the next stage in his cognitive evolution?), see the Torygraph article. 

Give that chimp some Hershey Bars and graham crackers!

h/t: Darrell

27 Comments

  1. Billy Bl
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Now why did I never think to put more than one marshmallow on the stick?

  2. Ken Phelps
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    “…he should have charred them completely, for that’s the best way to cook them.”

    Dear God, not another over/under toilet paper roll scenario.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      The only proper way to toast a marshmallow is to slowly heat it, with a constant slow rotation to promote even heating, until it just starts to spin freely on the skewer, then dip it directly into the flames to light it on fire, and finally blow, it out immediately and eat it.

      That is the perfect marshmallow. Which demonstrates the superiority of humans compared to bonobos!

  3. Philip Elliott
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Am I the only one that read this as “Bono gathers …”?

  4. Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Nina's Soap Bubble Box and commented:
    We would have developed an entirely different idea about humans if we’d discovered them before chimps.

    http://dykewriter.wordpress.com/2015/08/02/primate-world-chimps-and-bonobos/

  5. GBJames
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I thought chimps were smarter than to eat marshmallows.

    • Posted November 15, 2015 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      Toasted marshmallows are fantastic!

      • GBJames
        Posted November 15, 2015 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        The proper use of marshmallows is to toss them into a campfire, one by one. The resulting display is remarkable, quite like watching hot lava flows in Hawaii.

        Try it sometime! 😉

  6. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    There is a similar, and longer film about firebuilding and other amazing behaviors in Kanzi, the Bonobo. They walk upright a lot, for example. And besides making fire, Kanzi is not a bad driver, and can make simple stone tools. See this short <a href= Y>Ted Talk.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Whoopies. Here.

      • rickflick
        Posted November 13, 2015 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. Great show.

  7. Warren Johnson
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Count me skeptical. Remember all the fantastic things that animals used to do on the Mickey Mouse Club show? What about Lassie on TV? If I remember right, that dog could bark “Timmy’s fallen in the well !!”. And is this a new show (Monkey Planet?) scheduled to appear on the same network that is starting the fifth season of “Search for Bigfoot”?

    I want to see some serious scientific review before I will get excited.

    • Ralph
      Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      I’m also a little skeptical that we’re seeing edited highlights. These may be just the most dextrous-looking few seconds from days of filming him messing around with stuff. Did he really do these things in such an organized sequential manner in a short space of time?

      Still, I’ll accept that Kanzi is more qualified to be President than Ben Carson.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 13, 2015 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

        Compare the cluster of marshmallows he’s toasting at 0:55 to the one he’s eating at 1:00. It’s clearly not the same stick. So yes, these are cherry-picked highlights spliced together to create a narrative.

      • prinzler
        Posted November 14, 2015 at 9:59 am | Permalink

        I’m skeptical too, especially because of the editing.

        But we don’t know his stance on monetary policy, so it’s a toss-up between him and Ben Carson. I’ll wait until the evidence is in.

  8. Vaal
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    “As for the marshmallows, well, I don’t know, but he should have charred them completely, for that’s the best way to cook them.”

    Agreed. Properly enjoying an (almost) fully charred marshmallow is what separates us from our ape cousins.

    Of course, what also separates us is our ability to debate how far to char the marshmallow. 🙂

  9. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    “Others expressed skepticism, suggesting only a human in a bonobo suit could accomplish the task.”

    Seems they had too much to marshmallow to swallow.

  10. Posted November 13, 2015 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I think this is likely a case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’ (OK, well, Pan paniscus…), not least because somebody obviously provided the Bonobo with the matches and marshmallows, and it seemed also quite comfortable with somebody poking a camera in its face, fiddling around to get good angles, and so forth. But by the same token we probably shouldn’t underestimate the capability of either chimp species in their own terms. After all, the evidence is growing that homninins with only mildly larger brain size were quite capable of making fire – I’m thinking of H. florenisis, and there were others back at the end of the Pliocene that did the same thing.

    • ursula goodenough
      Posted November 14, 2015 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      I’ve had the honor to spend considerable time with Kanzi, and can assure you that this is not Pan see Pan do, but rather Pan understand, Pan do.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 14, 2015 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        As I understand it, the chief criticism of studies of ape language and intelligence is that too often we’re asked to simply accept at face value the assurances of trainers and advocates, without much in the way of objective metrics or independent confirmation.

        If Kanzi’s handlers want to convince us, the way to do it is to make the raw footage available and let us draw our own conclusions.

  11. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted November 13, 2015 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Bonobo gathers sticks, builds fire, toasts and eats marshmallows

    … showing higher cultural attainment than a busload of ISIL/ ISIS/ Daesh humans.

  12. Brian Davis
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    “are S’Mores the next stage in his cognitive evolution?”

    Don’t be silly. Making S’Mores (and moving goalposts) is a uniquely human activity.

  13. Posted November 14, 2015 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    Great video. I watch a lot of BBC nature programmes, but I missed that one.

    “I’m not convinced that chimps, or any animals, has used sign language to produce real semantic language…”

    That seems like a false dichotomy to me. All communication is “semantic”. Sure, human language has far more complex symbolic structures than that of animals, but I don’t think you can draw any absolute dichotomy of that sort. If you could show that non-human animals can’t put two symbols together in a sequence, that would be significant. But I doubt that’s the case.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 14, 2015 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      From a linguistic perspective, it’s not just about the ability to put words together, but whether the way they’re put together matters. Does “give me banana” mean something different from “me give banana”? Or does the ape use the two sequences interchangeably?

  14. Avis James
    Posted November 14, 2015 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    “cognitive evolution”- – Really?? I would admonish my students for such a construct! While grammatically correct because the word evolution can be defined as “any process of formation or growth” I tell them that they really should only use the term in the sense of biological evolution, and that individuals don’t evolve, populations do. Yes, I have almost daily rants in my head at NPR about this. What do you think, Jerry?

    • Posted November 15, 2015 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      I disagree on the grounds that I used “cognitive evolution,” which I thought clearly meant “the development of one’s thinking.” But I can see it could be taken by some to mean the biological evolution of cognition. However, I wouldn’t admonish my students because the use of “evolution” as change is firmly engrained in usage. Viz., Matt Ridley’s new book: The Evolution of Everything.”

      • Avis James
        Posted November 17, 2015 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

        I agree that you are grammatically correct. But I think people use the term “evolution” because it makes them seem cool (I am not talking about you or Matt Ridley here!) While I understood what you meant, I encourage my student to use the word in the strict biological sense.


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