If you’ve ever watched a toddler bob up and down to their favorite song, the origins of dance might seem clear: moving to a rhythm appears to be something like basic human nature. From this point of view, dance must date back to the invention of the very first, most rudimentary drum.
However, now some researchers at the University of Warwick believe it could be even older, and their theory stems from an unlikely place—grainy YouTube footage of two captive chimpanzees engrossed in an activity that certainly resembles a two-chimp conga line.
For years, Holly and Bahkahri, a pair of closely-bonded female chimps at the St. Louis Zoo, would unwittingly entertain and confuse visitors by pacing their enclosure together, one leading and one following very close behind, each step deliberate-looking and synchronized. If one sped up, so did the other. If one slowed down, the other chimp took the cue. While it can be dangerous to read too much into animal behaviors, matching each other in movement certainly seemed to be the goal.
Was this odd behavior trained into them by zoo staff? It’s true that for years, handlers at the St. Louis Zoo used to teach chimps tricks to amuse the guests. However, this was gradually done away with in the 1980s, and Holly and Bahkahri didn’t arrive until 1998.
It’s not the first time animals have engaged in purposely rhythmic movement. A variety of creatures have been found to move in time with human-made music. The intriguing part, this study argues, is that Holly and Bahkahri’s social ritual took place without any outside human influence—no musical cue required.
Delightful mental pictures aside, the Holly and Bahkari story does not necessarily point to a world in which wild chimps everywhere are secretly dancing whenever researchers’ backs are turned. Zoo behavior doesn’t paint a complete or accurate picture of wild behavior.
It’s possible, for instance, that these two particular chimps, who were both separated from their mothers at a young age, were syncing their movements as a kind of soothing activity. Supporting this theory is the fact that, according to St. Louis Zoo’s public relations director Susan Gallagher, the pair have engaged in these matched movements since infancy.
While obviously very early humans or proto-humans were not placed in zoo enclosures, they surely experienced their own share of grieving over absent family members, not to mention stress. The study authors suggest that these feelings might have led to similar coping tactics in pre-history, before music became a part of the picture. With few other feel-good strategies available to our early ancestors, perhaps dance simply began as a way of establishing close bonds with another, and making each other feel less alone.