On March 16, a group of 25 "students" from our Big Ecology Conservation Course carpooled to Central Washington University in Ellensburg to attend a "Chimposium," to hear a presentation by Dr. Pat Lubinski on a nearby mammoth excavation, and to tour the University's Museum of Culture and Environment.
Central Washington University's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) is a sanctuary for a unique family of chimpanzees who have acquired the signs of American Sign Language (ASL) and use those signs in conversations with each other and their human companions. The first thing that we learned at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) was the difference between chimps and monkeys. For one, monkeys have tails and chimps do not. The next thing we learned were the five big apes: Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Homo sapiens, Bonobos, and Orangutans. We are most closely related to chimps. They may not look exactly like us, but they share 98.77% of our DNA. When I heard that fact all I could think of was how accurate the Planet of the Apes series really was. Our genetics split apart from the chimps 1.5 million years ago, but many commonalities still exist between our species.
The gestation period for chimps is 35 weeks, and it takes about 40 weeks for humans. Chimps and tribal cultures of Homo sapiens both wean their children around five years of age. Chimps lose their baby teeth between the ages of 5 and 6, and humans lose their baby teeth between 5 and 10 years of age. Chimps and humans both start puberty around 13 years of age. Chimps have a lifespan between 30 (captivity) and 60 years (wild), and humans live between 60 and 70 years. Chimps live in communities, as do humans, and we both maintain a relationship with our mothers throughout our lives. Male chimps experience male bonding, but with less alcohol compared with humans. They live in hierarchical societies, as is the case with most humans, and there is competition and aggression between communities, with the only difference being that they settle their disagreements without using weapons of mass destruction. They use fear as a motivator, just like humans, and we witnessed first hand the side to side motion that chimps use to create the illusion that they are larger than they actually are (I’m going to try that the next time I am pulled over for speeding and see if it works on the sheriff!).
Chimps use tools to improve and diversify their diets, and we learned that some chimps even get culinary inspiration from reading gourmet magazines. Some tribes of chimps hunt alone, while others hunt in groups. The ones that hunt in groups involve elaborate and thorough planning to capture their prey. The chimps in Fongoli, Africa even use spears to hunt, so in many respects they behave as our ancestors did before grocery stores became an option for humans.
Washoe, born in 1965, was the first chimp to learn sign language, and she taught another chimp to sign, and that chimp is named Loulis. Loulis is the only non-human to be taught a Homo sapiens language by another non-human, and he was one of the chimps we were able to see. The chimps speak to each other through sign language, and they speak and interact with their human care givers through sign language. We even saw how they sign when they are speaking to themselves while reading magazines. See http://www.friendsofwashoe.org/ to learn more about all the chimps and the chimposiums.
|Attend a Chimposium!|
On the drive to Ellensburg, I envisioned holding one of these little creatures in my arms, just like I have seen on television. As I peered through the bullet-proof glass at these large and powerful creatures (they are 8-10 times stronger than humans), I quickly lost the desire for one-on-one contact. After one of the chimps ran past the glass and slapped it with his foot I was happy to be safely protected behind the glass that separated us from the chimps. We could not show our top teeth, as it would be seen by the chimps as a sign of aggression, and we walked hunched over as a gesture of submission and solidarity to our cousins. The experience was far more involved than going to a zoo, which makes you wonder about the existence and stimuli to which those creatures are exposed.
After a lovely picnic on the grass we went to learn about the recent discovery of the Wenas Creek Columbian Mammoth from excavation team leader Dr. Patrick Lubinski. The mammoth went extinct along with the Saber Tooth Tiger and the Dire Wolf, but when it lived on our northwest landscape up until about 10,000 years ago it was fifteen feet tall and weighed 20,000 pounds. It survived as a species for over a million years and it needed to eat 700 pounds of grass each day to sustain its place as the largest mammal to roam the earth since the dinosaurs.
Three similar species of hairy, tusked mammoths evolved in different parts of the world. The Imperial Mammoth lived between 1.2 millions years and 400,000 A.D. The Columbian Mammoth evolved next and it lived between 500,000 and 10,000 A.D. The Woolly Mammoth was the last to evolve and it roamed Siberia between 120,000 and 10,000 A.D. Many of the discoveries of mammoth bones in the northwest were made possible because of the massive floods of Lake Missoula. These catastrophic floods buried mammoths alive in mud slides which provide Paleontologists with their remains. The bones found at the Wenas Creek site were not old enough to be fossilized, and through carbon dating it was determined that they are around 17,000 years old.
|Mary Kiesau, our organizer with the mammoth femur|
The most significant find at the site was a part of the tip of a stone arrow - a piece of chert. The oldest human remains in North America have been dated at 13,000 years. If the point found at the Wenas Creek site was buried at the same time as the mammoth and bison bones that were found, it would make Wenas Creek the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens in North America. But, Dr. Lubinski said they have not yet found evidence that directly links the chert to the mammoth. It was 6 inches above the bones in the soil and could have been left there thousands of years later. More research will hopefully, eventually, bring about the answer. We got to hold a replica of the upper leg bone (the femur) of the Columbian Mammoth they unearthed, and it was over four feet tall and eighteen inches across at the top and bottom joints. The excavation went on for several years and it is a painstaking process. Brushes and compressed air were used to peal away the layers of dirt and sonar mapping was also used to guide the dig. Be sure to check out the "Virtual Dig Tour" here: http://www.cwu.edu/mammoth/!
|The mammoth's C1 vertebra was found!|