St. Mary’s Goes Bananas for Anthropologist Dr. Jill Pruetz

Written By: Maggie Warnick

On Wednesday, Oct. 7, Dr. Jill Pruetz, a primatologist from the University of Texas’ Anthropology department gave a lecture to the St. Mary’s anthropology community. Joining via Zoom, Pruetz was part of the department’s Fall 2020 Distinguished 

Scholar Lecture Series. Dr. Bill Roberts, St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) professor of anthropology, gave a glowing introduction of Pruetz, stating that she is “one of the world’s foremost researchers on the chimpanzee.” Continuing with the introduction, Roberts noted that Pruetz has gained global recognition for her work in Senegal, and been on the Today Show, as well as featured in the New York Times, among other media outlets. 

Pruetz began working with captive chimpanzees in a facility in Texas before her work in Senegal at a site called Fongoli. There are few chimpanzee study sites in west Africa, where Fongoli is located, due to the harsh climate and difficulty in habituating the chimpanzees to observer presence. Pruetz stated that in the 1970s, an effort to habituate the chimps at Fongoli had been made and failed, with the researchers determining it could not be done. After four years, Pruetz’s team was able to habituate the chimps, making them used to the observers’ presence enough to act as they normally would in front of them. 

Pruetz and her team of researchers began by looking at the difference between chimpanzees in Fongoli and chimpanzees who lived in forests. Fongoli is a unique area with a very hot and dry climate most of the year. The people who live in the surrounding area have cultural taboos against killing chimps, so they are one of the few large animals that remain. Surrounded by humans, there is little contact with other groups of chimps, creating a chimpanzee “culture” that is very different from the norm. “To me as an anthropologist, that was very fascinating when I started,” said Pruetz. Because of this uncommon environment, the chimpanzees in Fongoli exhibit different behaviors than would be expected. Up until research at the Fongoli site, it was believed that chimpanzees feared water and avoided going into it. However, because the climate is so hot, at the beginning of the rainy season, the chimpanzees at Fongoli have been extensively observed lounging in the water to cool off. Additionally to beat the heat, the chimpanzees will often move around at night to stay cool. 

Pruetz explained that another anomaly of the chimps in Fongoli is their meat hunting and sharing behaviors. Due to the climate, different animals are available to hunt and eat, with the primary source being bush babies. She noted that “even though meat is a small proportion of the diet, it is highly prized.” Females engage in tool-assisted  hunting much more than expected, as men are typically the meat-hunters among chimpanzees. The chimps also share meat with their allies, and lower ranking individuals who capture and kill an animal are not stripped of it by higher ranking individuals, as they normally would be. Pruetz attributes this to a social tolerance, a product of the relatively isolated environment in Fongoli. There is more of a sense of community, as researchers have not seen the same migration patterns between groups of chimpanzees as usual. Pruetz plans to continue her research in Senegal, with future research featuring the teaching and learning of tool use among young chimpanzees.

Pruetz’s virtual visit to SMCM was a resounding success, with the deep interest in her lecture and work from the SMCM anthropology community evident in the many insightful questions asked right up until the last minute. A gifted speaker, she enthralled lecture attendees as well as the classes she visited with the details of her research, and anecdotes of time spent with the chimpanzees.

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