Photo Credit: Observing chimpanzee cultures in the wild, Bossou, Guinea / Nicolas Langlitz


As the culture wars became more heated in the 1980s, significant parts of American cultural anthropology broke ties with evolutionary anthropology. Supposedly, the evolutionists’ Panglossian perspective regarded human life as perfectly adapted and thereby naturalized the status quo of a racist, sexist, and capitalist social order. Moreover, cultural anthropologists came to suspect that their own epistemic object, culture, had also stabilized this order by suggesting stark differences in values and beliefs between bounded and homogeneous groups and by “othering” people who were not like the anthropologists’ own group. At about the same time, Western primatologists came to adopt the culture concept from their Japanese colleagues. As they began to explore a multiculturalism beyond the human, they looked for interlocutors in cultural anthropology. But their colleagues had moved on. Nicolas Langlitz’s Chimpanzee Culture Wars recounts the history of this missed encounter. On the basis of ethnographic fieldwork among European, American, and Japanese cultural primatologists, the book asks what difference the present moment makes to the possibility of making up for a conversation that never really happened. It is an attempt to recenter anthropology on the hominoid condition today.

Sitting on a narrow strip of savanna, which the Gabonese maintained between the coastal forest swamps to our left and the deep somber rainforest to our right, I thought of Andrew Battell. During the two and a half years he had lived in Loango, the seventeenth-century British merchant had maintained a healthy respect, even wariness, of these woods so “covered with baboons, monkeys, apes, and parrots, that it will fear any man to travel in them alone.” But philosophers should undertake the arduous journey to the secluded kingdom, Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggested from a comfortable fauteuil in Paris one and a half centuries later. He had read about this wondrous place in Africa in a book from 1617, The Strange Adventures of Andrew Battell.

Two kinds of monsters lived in the forest surrounding the small port where the Englishman stayed. The people of Loango called them Pongoes and Engecoes. While Battell, unfortunately, forgot to describe the Engecoes, he claimed that the Pongoes’ hairless faces and the proportions of their furry bodies resembled those of human beings. They built shelters against the rain and buried their dead under heaps of branches. In the morning, they sat around the dying campfires next to which the locals had slept during a night in the forest. The Pongoes did not know how to sustain these fires, nor could they speak. Yet this description of them reminded Rousseau so much of humans that he wondered whether Battell had not stumbled upon “genuine Savage men … in the primitive state of Nature” who—unlike Europeans—had not yet developed their virtual faculties toward sorrowful perfection.

In 1755, the questions of who we were, where we had come from, and where we were going, as humans and especially as modern humans, appeared to be of eminent political importance. The French Revolution was fast approaching. Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality among Men asked what form of government would be most appropriate to human nature—and it was not Louis XVI’s absolutist monarchy. The philosopher speculated that originally, humans had enjoyed a state of freedom and equality that contrasted sharply with the subjection to strictly hierarchical social order under the Bourbons. If the Pongoes and Engecoes could shed light on how humans had lived before they formed societies fostering dependence and inequality, they might also provide inspiration as to how humankind might overcome its modern predicament.

According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, Rousseau’s treatise marked the beginning of anthropology. But it took more than a century before anthropologists followed Rousseau’s advice and set out for the field. It took another century before they would go to what is now known as Loango National Park in Gabon to study Battell’s monsters. As primate folklore gave way to primate science, these preternatural creatures turned out to be western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) and Central African chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes). Although neither species built shelters or buried their dead, the evolutionary anthropologists documenting their forms of life had grown convinced that the great apes had developed their own cultures, which could be studied ethnographically.

But these cultures were under threat everywhere. In Loango, park authorities insisted on the principle of nature et culture, that is, the peaceful coexistence of humans and the forest’s flora and fauna, while local poachers and loggers as well as Chinese oil companies pressed into the protected area to extract valuable resources. Just as cultural anthropology had quickly turned into a form of “salvage anthropology,” hurriedly documenting the last gasps of newly encountered ethnic groups to preserve some knowledge of their languages and cultures for the ethnographic archive, the budding field of cultural primatology sought to record and understand nonhuman cultures that were frequently facing imminent extinction.

In recent years, geologists, biologists, and humanities scholars have associated this rapid loss of biodiversity—which, at least in the case of the apes, arguably also entails a loss of cultural diversity—with the dawn of a new natural historical epoch, the Anthropocene. Many anthropologists and posthumanities scholars have expressed anger about the term because it attributes this massive planetary transformation to humankind as a whole rather than “situated peoples and their apparatuses, including their agricultural critters.” Instead, these critics prefer to talk about the Capitalocene or the Plantationocene. Both terms suggest that only particular and historically rather recent human cultures are to blame for the “outrage” of what capitalists and colonial plantation owners have done to “a vulnerable planet that is not yet murdered.” Moralist undertones aside, this is an important debate about the causes of the dramatic natural historical transformation we are experiencing.

While the beginnings of anthropogenic climate change appear to coincide with the industrial revolution, paleontologists like Paul Martin have argued that the current mass extinction event can be traced back all the way to early humans who began to kill off megafauna wherever they migrated from Africa. “While we appear rather unintimidating, and perhaps easy prey given our lack of claws, canines, venom, and speed, we come with a dangerous bag of tricks, including projectiles, spears, poisons, snares, fire, and cooperative social norms that make us a top predator,” noted evolutionary anthropologist Joseph Henrich. “It’s not just the fault of industrialized societies; our species’ ecological impacts have a deep history.” The ability of Homo sapiens to change the face of the Earth and even the planet’s climate has brought back with a vengeance the eighteenth-century question of human nature: What sets humans apart from other species?

But the political context in which this question gains its significance has radically changed. It is no longer the birth pains of the now-aging European and American democracies that make this philosophical and zoological puzzle a pressing concern. It is the accelerating transformation of ecosystems and the global climate to which we and the biota alongside which we evolved have adapted over hundreds of thousands of years. When nineteenth-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited colonial plantations in South America, he already realized that the irrevocable loss of life forms was the outcome of things we do and things we often decide to do collectively. As we are extending his insight from the Tristes tropiques to an equally mournful Arctic, we have begun to see recent natural history as a guilt-ridden political process. Today, the question of human nature is the question of why it is we who are responsible for this natural historical tragedy—or should we think of it as a black primate comedy? What happened in the evolution of Homo sapiens, originally just another African ape, that enabled this inconspicuous species of hominoid to dominate basically all ecosystems across the globe?

The advent of culture has been an obvious contender because it has allowed us to populate habitats radically different from the one in which our ancestors evolved. But if culture is actually not a uniquely human trait, as cultural primatologists claim, then we need to reconsider the question of what made us so exceptional that we came to conquer the planet while our closest relatives continue to be confined to equatorial Africa. And why are their numbers dwindling while ours are rising exponentially? In other words, what brought about the Anthropocene, if other primates have culture, too? Against this new horizon, the chimpanzee culture controversy poses anew the original question of anthropology: Who are we as a species and what may we expect of ourselves?

This excerpt is from the Prologue of Nicolas Langlitz, Chimpanzee Culture Wars: Rethinking Human Nature Alongside Japanese, European, and American Cultural Primatologists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).

Photo Credit: An evolutionary memento mori: open-air natural history museum, Loango National Park, Gabon / Nicolas Langlitz


Nicolas Langlitz is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research in New York. He is the author of Chimpanzee Culture Wars: Rethinking Human Nature alongside Japanese, European, and American Cultural Primatologists (Princeton University Press, 2020), Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain (University of California Press, 2012), and Die Zeit der Psychoanalyse: Lacan und das Problem der Sitzungsdauer (Suhrkamp, 2005). At present, he studies behavioral sciences that examine moral behavior and works on a book of microessays and aphorisms on the psychedelic experience.