How much did the presence of animals help these children survive? Does it matter what animal species it was? What are the factors that determine whether a group of animals accept or nurture a child? Is this animal altruism or a mutual survival strategy?
Would a troupe of monkeys really help a little boy survive?? The vervet monkey is the most common species of primate in Uganda. We humans, Homo sapiens, diverged from the old world monkeys around 30-25million years ago. So although we’re related, we’re very distant cousins. We share more traits with chimps, gorillas and baboons than we do with vervet monkeys.
Vervets live in hierarchical troupes, who range a territory looking for food each day. They will defend their territory from other animals that they consider to be a threat. They’re smart, quick to learn and they communicate with one another using eye contact, hand gestures and vocalisations.
What would happen if you approached a vervet troupe? The standard vervet response to people coming near them would be to run away, especially if the person is big, male, with a dog, slingshot, or other weapon the monkeys are familiar with. If the person is smaller, they might try to defend themselves using eye threats and stiff leg jump threats, or by charging with their teeth bared. They don’t want to actually fight, they just want to tell you to ‘back off’.
BUT…vervets who live near human settlements are very knowledgeable about what kind of human might be a threat. If a person is small and non-threatening, the monkeys might tolerate them. The more time the person spent with that particular troupe of monkeys, the more tolerant they would become.
Zoology researchers work slowly to get accustomed to their research subjects – eventually the monkeys behave normally whether the researchers are there or not.
Eventually it’s even possible that the monkeys would choose to cuddle or groom with a human child – which would have been crucial physical and emotional stimulation for John.
What would John have eaten? Everything a vervet eats is also edible to humans. But it’s a very fibrous, leafy, flowery diet that would be incredibly difficult for a human to digest. You might not die of starvation, but you certainly wouldn’t eat well.
BUT…vervets are smart. They choose to live near villages in southern Uganda rather than deep in the jungle, so they can steal food from outside homes and crop-raid from planted fields and gardens. Plantain, sweet potato, Irish (white) potato, and yellow bananas are all highly nutritious food sources that vervets will build enough courage to raid.
When John ran away from his family home, it’s likely that he joined a troupe of vervet monkeys living near his village. Just like the monkeys, he would have survived on the periphery of the nearby villages, eating wild foods and getting scraps of raided crops, but keeping himself concealed in the bush, sleeping and moving within the protection of the thick vegetation.
As Professor Phyllis Lee, an expert on the behaviour of primates at the University of Stirling explains: “I would not expect a vervet to “feed” a human, they don’t even share food with each other. Tolerated scrounging might be more likely – sitting near a vervet and picking up the bits that were dropped or ignored.
We have little evidence of whether or when vervets would co-feed with humans. Vervets in captivity can learn to tolerate a human with their food, but they don’t much like it – it causes aggression and “displacement” frustration.
Food is a real trigger for “me, me me” in all primates. Even the so-called ‘smart’ chimps don’t like to share food, unless there is sex at the other end, or some other major reward. Chimp mothers will share food with their infants, but I don’t know that vervets do this – in two years of observing mothers and infants, I never saw what I would consider “food sharing”.”
How do vervets travel, and would a human child be able to keep up? Vervets travel on the ground and climb around in trees, naturally travelling at about human walking speed. That said, patches of vegetation are thick and prickly – this is not an easy environment, it’s malarial and gets very wet in the rainy season. Without fire, shelter or adequate clothing, a human child would suffer pretty badly.
With thanks to Phyllis Lee at Stirling University, Henry Opio at the Ugandan Wildlife Education Centre, and Vicki Fishlock at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project for advising me!