Thursday, June 11, 2009

Laughing With us and at Us

Bigfoot researchers, including myself, sometimes fall into the habit of anthropomorphizing sasquatches. This makes sense on several levels. After all, we are trapped in the human experience, so we relate to other animals and objects as if they are human(ish) too (ever yell at a dog or even a computer?). Besides, bigfoots are very similar to us in morphology (body structure), which suggests that they may be very similar to us in sentience and thought, but this remains to be seen.

When a news item pops up showing similar behaviors between apes and humans, I take notice. After all, biologically, I am an ape, as are you. I have thumbs, shoulders made for brachiation, no tail, and (aside from some gentle "manscaping") I'm pretty much covered with hair. Sure, we're special apes, but apes nonetheless.

This news item outlines some recent research into ape laughter. Since both apes and humans laugh, this would indicate that our last common ancestor also laughed some 10 to 16 million years ago. (I wonder what kind of humor was around then. "Two trilobites walk into a bar...")

Ape laughter is an interesting topic for us bigfooters. If you've been around the bigfoot game for a while, you have undoubtedly heard some peculiar stories. Some of these stories seem to follow themes that weave through the encounter reports. One of the themes that keeps rearing its head over and over is that sasquatches, on some level, seem to have a sense of humor. This might just be me anthropomorphizing them, but I would argue that this is not the case.

A Yurok Indian told my partner and I about the sasquatches that live around his property near the Klamath River in Northern California. This Indian, who I'll refer to as LB, lives off the grid with a number of other Yuroks with no electricity or phone, and grows food crops in a garden. He claims to have a number of seemingly juvenile sasquatches living in the woods around the property, and he sees them with enough regularity to have given names to certain individuals. One of the bigfoots has been named "The Joker" because of his antics. This sasquatch will see LB and his friends working in the garden, and when the opportunity arises, The Joker will dash out and steal a shovel or rake or some other unattended gardening tool. Groaning, the indians drop what they're doing, and start searching for the lost tool. The tools are usually recovered a few hundred yards into the treeline.

The owner of a property I'm researching, known as the Clackamas River Project, thinks he has heard possible bigfoot laughter from the woods. He was walking up the outside stairs to his balcony while carrying an armload of groceries one day, when he missed a step and stumbled. A strange vocalization that he described as being almost like laughter coincided with the fall. Was a bigfoot laughing at him? Slapstick humor is pretty funny, after all.

Bigfooters in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California were experimenting with "bait piles" a few years back. They would leave apple piles in prominent locations of recent bigfoot activity. When the researchers returned, the apples would often be gone, but with one apple left. There was even one occasion when a small platform was constructed in a tree some eight feet off the ground, and the apple pile was left there. Upon returning, the researchers found that the apples were taken, with one left for them, but this apple was moved three feet higher in the tree and wedged in between two other branches! Bears might get full and leave an apple here or there, but they would never wedge that last apple into the crotch of two branches.

The examples above might illustrate that bigfoots seem to have some subtle sense of humor. There are plenty of other examples of similar events that support this hypothesis even further. Now that some good folks are studying the laughter of the other apes, perhaps some new light will be shed on our undiscovered cousins.

Apes Laugh, Tickle Study Finds
Brian Handwerk for National Geographic News
June 4, 2009
What happens if you tickle a gorilla? According to a new study, the ape laughs—which would mean we're not the only animals born with funny bones.

By tickling young gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, researchers say they learned that all great apes laugh.

Their findings suggest we inherited our own ability to laugh from the last common ancestor from which humans and great apes evolved, which lived 10 to 16 million years ago.

Primatologist and psychologist Marina Davila Ross of the U.K.'s University of Portsmouth led a team that tickled the necks, feet, palms, and armpits of infant and juvenile apes as well as human babies. The team recorded more than 800 of the resulting giggles and guffaws.

Mapping the audible similarities and differences in laughs across the five species, the researchers created an acoustic family tree of human and great ape laughter.

The tree, they found, closely matched the standard genetics-based evolutionary tree of primates.

"So we concluded that these vocalizations all share the same common ancestry," Davila Ross explained.

But even the most casual listener can tell a human laugh from an ape laugh. Davila Ross points out that human laughter has distinct differences from ape laughter, most likely because humans have evolved much more rapidly than apes during the past five million years.

And at least one great mystery remains: What purpose does ape laughter serve?

"I'm very keen," Davila Ross said, "on learning how laughter is being used among great apes as compared to humans."

Is It Really Laughter?

It's previously been argued that chimps chuckle, but their method—"laughing" on both the exhale and inhale—had been deemed too different from the human, exhale-only laugh.
The tickle study, however, found evidence that most ape laughter, especially among gorillas and bonobos, shares key traits with human laughter.

Like humans, for example, gorillas and bonobos laughed only while exhaling—leading University of Wisconsin zoologist and psychologist Charles Snowdon, who was not involved in the study, to conclude that, "contrary to current views, the exhalation-only laughter is not uniquely human but is found in our ape ancestors."

Furthermore, gorillas' and bonobos' exhaling breaths during laughter lasted three to four times longer than during normal breathing.

This type of breath control, considered important in speech evolution, had also been thought to be unique to humans.

"Play Faces" to Chimp Chuckles?

Convinced by what he calls an "admirable" study, primatologist Frans de Waal said from now on he'd use "laughter" to describe what scientists have traditionally called a chimp's play face.
The combination of common facial expressions, breathing patterns, and sounds has led de Waal to the conclusion that our laughter has prehistoric, ape-based origins.

What's more, "the primate laugh is given in playful contexts, and as such has a strong similarity to the human laugh," added de Waal, who was not involved in the tickle study.

"Tickling and wrestling are the situations in which primates laugh—and I use the term 'laugh' now advisedly, because the evidence from this study is very strong that their display is evolutionarily related to the human laugh."

Next Up: Rat Laughter?

Primates have apparently packed a lot of laughter into the last 10 to 16 million years, but there's a chance the chuckle originated even earlier: Tickle-induced "laughter" has also been reported in rats.

The idea remains controversial, but it could suggest that our funny bone evolved much closer to the trunk of mammals' evolutionary tree.

Check out the original article. It has audio samples of various ape laughter, and another excellent video on the subject. The link is here:

And finally, check out my previous blog on whistling orangutans. I love our hairy family!

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