Kanzi The Bonobo Builds Fire & Cooks

On December 26, 2013 by Tim Newman

Kanzi - Chimp Bonobo making fire - portrait

According to evolution our nearest cousins are the chimpanzees. This doesn’t mean we evolved from them, it means that we had a shared ancestor. Somewhere in the mists of time we have a the same great, great, great…. great…. grandma.

Something happened along our specific branch of development that enabled us, or allowed us, or gave us the opportunity to start getting a bit more cerebral.

Higher mammals are all pretty good at planning and thinking, but we are particularly awesome at it. One of the earliest pinnacles of useful abstraction was the control of fire. Keeping us warm in the winter nights, cooking food to make the inedible edible and warding off predators. How this initial leap in thinking came about is unknown of course. Perhaps an early human made a spark that lit some dry grass by accident whilst banging two stones together for fun. We don’t and probably won’t ever know.

These following photos show Kanzi, a 31-year-old bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee. He has taken to breaking up fire wood, building a fire, lighting it then cooking and eating dinner. It’s entertainingly humanesque. It’s certainly not wild behaviour. But the fact that he has taken to it so fully is amazing to see.

Kanzi gathering fire wood - chimp makes fire


If Kanzi didn’t have a warm place to stay of an evening would he learn to keep the fire burning for longer rather than lose interest and wander off as it fades? If predators were an issue would the urge to build and tend to the fire be such that he would become an expert? If other bonobos were around, would they see the benefit and learn the skills too?

Kanzi - Chimp Bonobo making fire - with pan

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Kanzi is looked after by Dr Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, one of the world’s leading experts in ape behaviour and language. Kanzi can understand around 3000 words and use around 500 by pointing to words and symbol on cards. Sue reckons this fire/cooking behaviour shows deep intelligence. I’m sure you could argue either way as to whether the incredible chimp is simply copying, or whether he understands each of the steps he is carrying out and their separate meaning within the task.

It kind of doesn’t matter I suppose. It’s a pretty arresting sight.

Kanzi - Chimp Bonobo making fire - dinner 2

Kanzi - Chimp Bonobo making fire - dinner

Dr Sue says the following:

Kanzi makes fire because he wants to. He used to watch the film Quest For Fire when he was very young which was about early man struggling to control fire. He watched it spellbound over and over hundreds of times.

That’s pretty interesting in itself. Here he is melting some marshmallows:


Before I leave you I think I should leave you with a little jab at the Daily Mail, as is my want. They ran with Kanzi’s story under the title: “Now that’s a chim-PAN-zee”. (Not my capitalisation). They also thought it relevant to include a screen shot of the Jungle Book’s ape King Louie at the bottom of the piece. Quality to the last.

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