Almost Human

On the savannas of Senegal, chimpanzees are hunting bush babies with spearlike sticks. This hothouse of chimp “technology” offers clues to our own evolution.

  1. Daybreak is sudden and swift, as though an unseen hand had simply reached out and raised a dimmer switch. Cued by the dawn, thirty-four chimpanzees awaken. They are still in the nests they built the previous night, in trees at the edge of an open plateau.

    A wild chimpanzee does not get out of bed quietly. Chimps wake up hollering. There are technical names for what I'm hearing—pant-hoots, pant-barks, screams, hoos—but to a newcomer's ear, it's just a crazy, exuberant, escalating racket. You can't listen without grinning.

    These are not chimps you've seen in these pages before. They're savanna-woodland chimps, found in eastern Senegal and across the border in western Mali. Unlike their better-known rain forest kin, savanna-woodland chimps spend most of their day on the ground. There is no canopy here. The trees are low and grow sparsely. It's an environment very much like the open, scratchy terrain where early humans evolved. For this reason, chimpanzee communities like the Fongoli group—named for a stream that runs through its range—are uniquely valuable to scientists who study the origins of our species.

    By 8 a.m. my chintzy key-chain thermometer says it's 90 degrees. Our shirts are marked by the same white salt lines that appear on people's boots in winter. Here it's salt from sweat. The plateau we're crossing is a terrain of nothing, of red rocks and skin cancer, with no trees to break the fall of equatorial sun. In our backpacks we each carry three liters of water. It w...