June 8, 2022

How I Became a Baboon

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Well, actually, I have deceived you. This is not really my story, but it is the story of someone who learned to become a baboon as a result of living for two years with a troop of baboons in Africa. I found in reading this remarkable document I was so moved, I became almost speechless with wonder. And I knew at once that I would want to share it with you.

The woman who wrote it,
Barbara Smuts, is currently an emerita professor of anthropology and psychology at the University of Michigan. She is famous for her studies of baboons, chimpanzees and dolphins. I will give you more information about her and about the article from which this excerpt is drawn at the end of this blog.

But for now, I invite you to become acquainted with this remarkable woman and learn how it was that she became a baboon and, more important, what she learned about herself in the process. I think by the time you get to the end of this blog, you, too, will be left, as I was, with a feeling of awe.

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“Resting in the shade of a tree, Alex, Daphne and I lazily contemplate the landscape, dotted here and there with herds of zebra and impala. A breeze rises, fluffing up the hair on Daphne’s head. I fiddle with a brightly colored stone and Alex leans over to peer at my find. Then he rests his head against the tree and dozes. I look past him at Daphne and our gazes meet. She makes a friendly face and moves a little bit closer. Daphne, too, begins to nap, and soon I’m drifting off as well, lulled to sleep by the sound of her gentle breathing and the birds flitting about in the tree above. My body relaxes completely, secure in the presence of my companions. 

“Many of us have shared such peaceful moments with dear friends. But my experience under the tree had an unusual twist because Alex and Daphne were baboons, members of a wild troop that for over two years daily welcomed me into their midst. Through this close association, I discerned in each baboon a distinct presence that seemed much like the kind of ‘self’ that dwells within me. Among scientists, applying concepts like ‘self’ or ‘consciousness’ to nonhuman animals is very controversial, both because no one agrees on how to define these terms, and because however we define them, they retain a subjective dimension that makes them resistant to investigation by scientific methods. Rather than enter this treacherous territory, I will just tell some stories to give a feeling for what it is like to encounter a ‘self’ in wild baboons and other animals. 

“During multiple forays to Kenya and Tanzania over the past 25 years, the baboons I came to know the best belonged to Eburru Cliffs troop (EC), named after a rocky outcropping in the Great Rift Valley near Lake Naivasha. EC’s 135 members moved as a cohesive unit in search of food throughout a huge area of roughly 70 km. For two years, I joined the baboons at dawn and travelled with them until they reached some sleeping cliffs at dusk, twelve hours later. With occasional days off, I repeated this routine seven days a week. For several months, I lived alone and went for days without seeing another human. Later, I lived with other researchers whom I saw in the evening, but I interacted with people infrequently while with the baboons. 

“I came to live with baboons as a result of my lifelong curiosity about animals. Although I entered their world as a scientist interested in primate social behaviour, many of the skills I used to get to know them were inherited from my ancestors rather than learned in graduate school. Until recent times, all humans possessed profound familiarity with other creatures. Paleolithic hunters learned about the giant bear the same way the bear learned about them: through the intense concentration and fully aroused senses of a wild animal whose life hangs in the balance. Our ancestors’ survival depended on exquisite sensitivity to the subtle movements and nuanced communication of predators, prey, competitors, and all the animals whose keener senses of vision, smell, or hearing enhanced human apprehension of the world. 

“Each of us has inherited this capacity to feel our way into the being of another, but our fast-paced, urban lifestyle rarely encourages us to do so. During my life with the baboons, I discovered that, plunged back into the wild world from which we emerged, ancient skills come alive, and once again human and animal minds meet on equal ground. 

“However, at the beginning of my study, the baboons and I definitely did not see eye to eye. I wanted to get as close to them as possible; they wanted to keep their distance. 

“Convincing them that I was not a threat was the first major challenge I faced.

“I began with the obvious first step: In open country I approached the wary troop from a great distance and halted whenever they began to move away. The baboons gradually allowed me to inch closer, but progress was slow. Then I began to notice more subtle responses to my presence. For example, baboons, ever vigilant for predators, look around a lot while foraging, and I realized that as I drew closer, more of their looks were directed at me. A little later I noticed that even before this happened, females began to issue calls and direct stern looks at their infants to signal them to return to mom, just in case the dangerous human moved any closer. By tuning in to these more subtle signals, I was able to stop approaching before most of the baboons got nervous. Soon they let me get much closer, and eventually I was allowed to move among them freely.

“When speaking about this process at professional gatherings, I’ve used the accepted scientific term, ‘habituation’. The word implies that the baboons adapted to me, that they changed, while I stayed essentially the same. But in reality, the reverse is closer to the truth. The baboons remained themselves, doing what they always did in the world they had always lived in. I, on the other hand, in the process of gaining their trust, changed almost everything about me, including the way I walked and sat, the way I held my body, and the way I used my eyes and voice. I was learning a whole new way of being in the world — the way of the baboon. I was not literally moving like a baboon — my very different morphology prevented that — but rather I was responding to the cues that baboons use to indicate their emotions, motivations and intentions to one another, and I was gradually learning to send such signals back to them. As a result, instead of avoiding me when I got too close, they started giving me very deliberate dirty looks, which made me move away. This may sound like a small shift, but in fact it signaled a profound change from being treated as an object that elicited a unilateral response (avoidance), to being recognized as a subject with whom they could communicate. Over time they treated me more and more as a social being like themselves, subject to the demands and rewards of relationship. This meant that I sometimes had to be willing to give more weight to their demands (e.g., a signal to ‘get lost!’) than to my desire to collect data. But it also meant that I was increasingly often welcomed into their midst, not as a barely-tolerated intruder but as a casual acquaintance or even, on occasion, a familiar friend. 

“Being treated like a fellow baboon proved immensely useful to my research, because I experienced directly critical aspects of baboon society. For example, I soon learned that the baboons’ most basic social conventions entail acknowledgement of relative status through respect for personal space. In general, each baboon has a small invisible circle around him or her that a lower-ranking animal will rarely invade without first signaling intent (usually by grunting) and receiving from the other an indication that it is safe to approach (usually a reciprocal grunt and/or the ‘come hither’ face). If the approaching animal is dominant, he or she may or may not respect the other’s personal space; it depends on the nature of their relationship and the current context. For example, when a higher-ranking female approaches a mother in order to greet her young infant, she often pauses to grunt and make appealing faces at the infant outside the boundaries of the mother’s personal space. This indicates that the female’s intentions are friendly, which reduces the chances that the mother will leave with her baby. In contrast, if a female is approaching a lower-ranking mother in order to take over her feeding site, she’ll usually enter the mother’s personal space without pausing, causing her to move away. 

“Once I became sensitive to the importance of personal space in baboon society, I realized that the boundaries of personal space could shrink or grow, depending on the individuals concerned and the situation. For example, when a male courts a female, her personal space tends to expand, and to woo her the male needs to be very sensitive to this shift. In a similar vein, if a subordinate, S, has recently been threatened or attacked by a more dominant animal, D, S’s personal space in relation to D will expand until they have reconciled (by touching or through vocal communication or until enough time has passed to neutralize S’s fear of D. Sometimes personal space shrinks to nothing. This occurs most often among very young animals, kin, or close friends. In such intimate relationships, no one worries too much about being polite. Thus, the way baboons construct and relate to personal space reflects, among other things, the intentions of each party; their age, gender, and relative statuses; their degree of familiarity; the trust a subordinate feels toward a dominant; recent histories of interaction; and the particular circumstances of the moment. 

Primatologists have long recognized the fundamental importance of personal space by considering ‘approach–retreat’ interactions a valid measure of relative status. But status is just one of many factors influencing how baboons relate to one another. Familiarity and trust — which allow two individuals to overlap their circles of personal space, regardless of gender, age, or relative status — are every bit as important. In my relations with baboons, these two elements proved more salient than status. 

“Every well-trained field worker knows that it is critical not to move too close to the animals one is studying, so as to minimize one’s influence on their emotions and behaviour. But less often do field workers acknowledge the subtle and complex issues that arise when the animals regard the scientist as a social subject. For example, as a graduate student I was told by more experienced primatologists that I should always ignore or slowly move away from any study animal who came near me or tried to interact with me (in other words, any animal who entered my personal space). The idea was that, by ignoring the animals, we would discourage them from paying attention to us. The baboons soon taught me otherwise. 

“One day, when I was sitting on the edge of the troop, a foraging female approached me. When she was about two feet away (an undeniable overlap of personal space), she grunted softly several times without looking up. I turned my head to see whom she was grunting at, and, spotting no other baboons within 15 yards, realized that she was talking to me. After that epiphany, I paid much more attention to what it meant to the baboons to ignore another’s approach. 


“When a baboon makes the come hither face, he or she flattens the ears back against the skull and raises the brows to reveal the white skin on the eyelids. This expression conveys friendly intent. 



“I soon learned that ignoring the proximity of another baboon is rarely a neutral act, something that should have been obvious to me from my experience among humans. Whether or not a baboon ignores another conveys a great deal about the relationship. At one end of the spectrum, as mentioned above, baboons who are closely related or good friends sometimes completely ignore each other’s proximity, especially during foraging, much as we might disregard a family member who approaches while we are absorbed in a task. At the other end of the spectrum, a female with a young infant will often flee when a male new to the troop merely glances her way. Most relationships fall somewhere between these extremes, and usually when two baboons meet, they acknowledge each other’s presence through conventions like grunting, the ‘come hither’ face, or brief greeting rituals involving body contact. Depending on the context and the animals involved, ignoring another can be a sign of trust (as among close kin), or an indication of great tension. For example, among adult males vying over status, the ability to ignore a rival’s approach signals a refusal to submit to him and often provokes even closer proximity as the other male attempts to force the rival to lose his composure. 

“Thus, although ignoring the approach of a baboon may at first sound like a good strategy, those who advised me to do so did not take into account the baboons’ insistence on regarding me as a social being. After a little while, I stopped reflexively ignoring baboons who approached me and instead varied my response depending on the baboon and the circumstances. Usually, I made brief eye contact or grunted. When I behaved in this baboon-appropriate fashion, the animals generally paid less attention to me than they did if I ignored them. It seemed that they read my signals much as they read each other’s. By acknowledging a baboon’s presence, I expressed respect, and by responding in ways I picked up from them, I let the baboons know that my intentions were benign and that I assumed they likewise meant me no harm. Once this was clearly communicated in both directions, we could relax in one another’s company. 

“Ignoring an animal in a neutral or mildly friendly situation is usually a low-cost mistake, but ignoring a hostile animal can have grave consequences. I learned this lesson not from a baboon but from a brash adolescent male chimpanzee named Goblin. Shortly after I arrived at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Goblin began to stalk me. He would materialize before me, give me a hostile look, and then disappear into the vegetation, only to re-emerge minutes or hours later to glare at me again. After a few days of this, he began to attack me. Sometimes, he would charge, slapping me as he passed by. Sometimes he would sneak up behind me, punch me in the back, and then flee. At other times he would lurk in the bushes until he saw me adopt a vulnerable position, such as squatting on the edge of an incline. Then he would throw himself through the air, land on my back, and pummel me as we tumbled down the slope together. 

“This went on for a couple of weeks. Goblin had not hurt me seriously, but I was bruised, and more importantly, I was a nervous wreck. I spoke to the research director about my problem, who recommended that I just ignore him, confident that he would soon tire of his games. Then I found out that another researcher who was small like me had been so tormented by Goblin that she could no longer follow chimps out of camp. I became plagued by imaginary headlines (‘researcher foiled by chimpanzee stalker’) and feared an ignominious end to my studies. 

“I tolerated a few more of Goblin’s attacks. Then one day he snuck up behind me and stole my rain poncho, which I had looped around my belt. Getting hit was one thing, but losing precious and irreplaceable rain gear was too much. Without thinking, I spun around and grabbed an edge of the poncho just as Goblin twirled to run away with it. I pulled hard. Goblin stood bipedal and pulled at his end. Suddenly, he relinquished his grip, and as I leaned forward to maintain my balance, I swung a hard right. The blow, softened by the poncho covering my fist, rammed into Goblin’s nose. I had acted instinctively, without thought. Indeed, had I thought about it I never would have done it, because several of Goblin’s adult male allies were nearby. But I was lucky. After I punched him, Goblin crumpled into a whimpering child and went to Figan, the alpha male, for reassurance. Without glancing up, Figan reached out and patted Goblin several times on the top of the head. 

“I later realized that Goblin had been treating me just as he was treating some of the adult female chimpanzees. He was at the age when a young male chimp climbs up the female hierarchy as a prelude to taking on adult males. Goblin apparently viewed me (and the other chimp-sized woman he had so badly intimidated) as another female to dominate. He had already subdued every chimp female except Figan’s sister, Fifi, and the biggest and toughest female, Gigi. One day when Goblin was harassing Gigi, much as he’d harassed me, she turned and smacked him hard and I realized that my instincts had been on target. A female chimpanzee being harassed by an adolescent male will either submit (removing the reason for his attacks) or, like Gigi, fight back. By ignoring Goblin I had failed to send a clear signal either way, and so he persisted. After the poncho episode, he did not bother me again. 

“The baboons never attacked me, fortunately, since the males’ two-inch-long razor-sharp canines can inflict lethal wounds. People sometimes ask me, ‘Weren’t you scared?’ In fact, while studying chimps at Gombe, I was initially terrified of the baboons who shared the park, because they were so unfamiliar to me. However, by the time I got close to Eburru Cliffs, I felt confident that, if a baboon felt like attacking me, I would know it. The degree to which they accepted me among them suggests that they felt much the same about me. 

“Because I wanted to minimize the ways in which my presence might change their behaviour, I did not cultivate personal relationships with the baboons or encourage them to cultivate such relationships with me. I turned away from juveniles who invited me to play, and when a baboon touched me, I waited for a moment and then slowly moved away. Over time, such overtures became less rather than more common, suggesting that my low-key responses reduced the baboon’s curiosity. The mutually respectful but somewhat distant relationships we developed provided ideal circumstances for my research. 

“Although I didn’t relate to the baboons one-on-one (aside from the nuanced responses described above), I did develop a feeling of intimacy with the troop as a whole. I spent most of my waking hours with them. I ate my own food and drank my own water, but otherwise my routine was identical to theirs. I walked wherever they did, and I rested when and where they rested. Often, during siesta time, there were only a few big trees in sight, and it seemed natural to for us to share the shade. 

“After doing much of what they did for some time, I felt like I was turning into a baboon. A simple example involves my reactions to the weather. On the savanna during the rainy season, we could see storms approaching from a great distance. The baboons became restless, anticipating a heavy downpour. At the same time, because they wanted to keep eating, they preferred to stay out in the open as long as possible. The baboons had perfected the art of balancing hunger with the need for shelter. Just when it seemed inevitable to me that we would all get drenched, the troop would rise as one and race for the cliffs, reaching protection exactly as big drops began to fall. For many months, I wanted to run well before they did. Then something shifted, and I knew without thinking when it was time to move. I could not attribute this awareness to anything I saw, or heard or smelled; I just knew. Surely it was the same for the baboons. To me, this was a small but significant triumph. I had gone from thinking about the world analytically to experiencing the world directly and intuitively. It was then that something long slumbering awoke inside me, a yearning to be in the world as my ancestors had done, as all creatures were designed to do by aeons of evolution. Lucky me. I was surrounded by experts who could show the way. 

“Learning to be more of an animal came easily as I let go of layers of thinking and doing that sometimes served me back home but were only hindrances here. All I had to do was stick with the baboons and attend to what they did and notice how they responded. After a while, being with them felt more like ‘the real world’ than life back home. 

“Baboons are nothing if not highly idiosyncratic individuals, as distinct from each other as we humans are). But they also exist as selves-in-community. This aspect of their being is particularly salient in certain contexts. For example, when baboons respond to a neighbouring troop’s intrusion into their home range, they move together toward the enemy. They most vividly convey a sense of group spirit when they share a highly pleasurable experience. Once, after few days of heavy rain, we stumbled upon a plethora of newly emerged mushrooms — a baboon delicacy that normally evokes competition. This day, however, there were enough mushrooms for everyone. To my amazement, before anyone dug in, they all paused to join in a troop-wide chorus of food-grunts, their bodies literally shaking with excitement. In that moment, I realized that collective rejoicing in celebration of sustenance must have begun long ago. 

“The baboon’s thorough acceptance of me, combined with my immersion in their daily lives, deeply affected my identity. The shift I experienced is well described by 4 millennia of mystics but rarely acknowledged by scientists. Increasingly, my subjective consciousness seemed to merge with the group-mind of the baboons. Although ‘I’ was still present, much of my experience overlapped with this larger feeling entity. Increasingly, the troop felt like ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. The baboons’ satisfactions became my satisfactions, their frustrations my frustrations. When I spotted a gazelle fawn in the distance, I apprehended it as prey, and if the baboons succeeded in catching one, my mouth watered while they tore flesh from the bones, even though I don’t eat meat. When on the cliffs after dark, the baboons warned each other of a predator drawing near, my body tensed up as if I, too, were in danger, even though my rational mind knew that there were no predators large enough to attack me within many miles.

“I sensed the mood of the troop as soon as I arrived in the morning. I could usually tell whether we were going to travel a short or long distance that day. Often, I anticipated exactly where we would go, without knowing how I did it. Even though no one had yet changed direction, I knew when we were about to head for the sleeping cliffs. When we got there and the baboons lay around in soft green grass in the glow of the setting sun, I lay around with them. They had eaten their full, and I had gathered my day’s observations. With nothing more to do, we shared the timeless contentment of all social animals relaxing in the company of their friends. After I left them each night, I felt strangely empty, eager to join them again the next morning. 

“I had never before felt a part of something larger, which is not surprising, since I had never so intensely coordinated my activities with others. With great satisfaction, I relinquished my separate self and slid into the ancient experience of belonging to a mobile community of fellow primates. 

“There were special occasions when the experience of community intensified. Once, when I was travelling with baboons at Gombe, I lost the troop during a terrific downpour. Far from camp, I ran to the lakeshore and crawled into an abandoned fisherman’s shelter for protection. The inside of the hut was pitch dark, but I soon realized I was not alone. About thirty baboons were crowded into a space the size of an average American kitchen. When I entered, some baboons must have moved slightly to make room for me, just as they would do for one of their own. But they didn’t move far. Baboons surrounded me and some of them brushed against me as they shifted their positions. The rain continued. The hut filled with the clover-like smell of their breath, and our body heat transformed the hut into a sauna. I felt as if I’d been sitting this way, in the heart of a baboon circle, my whole life, and as if I could go on doing this forever. When the rain stopped, no one stirred for a little while. Maybe they felt the same contentment that I did. 

“Another time, when I had a bad cold, I fell asleep in the middle of the day, while baboons fed all around me. When I awoke at least an hour later, the troop had disappeared, all but one adolescent male who had decided to take a nap next to me. Plato (we gave the baboons Greek names) stirred when I sat up, and we blinked at each other in the bright light. I greeted him and asked him if he knew where the others were. He headed off in a confident manner and I walked by his side. This was the first time I had ever been alone with one of the baboons, and his comfort with my presence touched me. I felt as if we were friends, out together for an afternoon stroll. He took me right to the other baboons, over a mile away. After that, I always felt a special affinity for Plato. 

“One experience I especially treasure. The Gombe baboons were travelling to their sleeping trees late in the day, moving slowly down a stream with many small, still pools, a route they often traversed. Without any signal perceptible to me, each baboon sat at the edge of a pool on one of the many smooth rocks that lined the edges of the stream. They sat alone or in small clusters, completely quiet, gazing at the water. Even the perpetually noisy juveniles fell into silent contemplation. I joined them. Half an hour later, again with no perceptible signal, they resumed their journey in what felt like an almost sacramental procession. I was stunned by this mysterious expression of what I have come to think of as baboon sangha. Although I’ve spent years with baboons, I witnessed this only twice, both times at Gombe. I have never heard another primatologist recount such an experience. I sometimes wonder if, on those two occasions, I was granted a glimpse of a dimension of baboon life they do not normally expose to people. These moments reminded me how little we really know about the ‘more-than-human world.’”

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Barbara Smuts received her Ph.D. in bio-behavioral sciences from Stanford Medical School, and is now a professor emerita in the psychology department at the University of Michigan. She has studied social relationships in chimpanzees and savanna baboons in East Africa and wild bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia. For the last few years she has been studying social behavior in canines. Her publications include Sex and Friendship in Baboons (2nd ed., 1999), Primate Societies (co-edited, 1983), and numerous articles and book chapters

For the full article from which this excerpt was taken, please go to this link:

https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/iatl/study/ugmodules/ugmodules/humananimalstudies/lectures/32/smuts.pdf