A seemingly spontaneous conga line by a pair of captive chimpanzees might tell us something about how humans first learned to dance, scientists behind a new study say.
For years, visitors to the Saint Louis Zoo occasionally spotted and filmed a perplexing display from two closely bonded female chimpanzees named Holly and Bahkahri: They would walk and sway in sync along their habitat, usually each carrying a blanket underneath them, almost as if they were dancing a rudimentary conga line.
In a new study published Thursday in Scientific Reports, researchers from Europe say there’s ample evidence to suggest the chimps’ routine was neither an accident nor the product of human training. And they even argue that the discovery could help establish a new theory about how dance first evolved in humans.
While other animals have been observed moving their bodies rhythmically to sounds or in response to another member of their species the way humans do, this seems to be the first time any animals besides us have been shown to display this sort of behavior spontaneously, without any kind of external stimulus like music, according to the authors.
In this case, it’s likely that the dance arose as a coping behavior for the two chimps. While they were eventually accepted into the family at the zoo, both chimps were deprived of their mothers and a healthy environment early on in their lives, which can obviously affect both humans and nonhuman primates pretty dramatically. Being so closely bonded, the synchronized swaying might have been a stress reliever, much like a baby sucking its thumb.
Indeed, the Saint Louis Zoo has said as much. The zoo’s public relations director, Susan Gallagher, told local outlet KSDK in 2017 that the two chimps had been “dancing” since infancy.
“As adults, Holly and Bakhari socialize with all the other members of their group and behave like the chimpanzees they are,” she said, “But there are still times when the two best friends seek each other out for the familiar tactile comfort they offer each other.”