A young olive baboon – the kind I studied.

A young olive baboon – the kind I studied.

by Hugh Gilmore

Back when I became an anthropologist, I did so because I wanted to know why human beings behave the way they do. I suppose I could have gone into psychology or sociology, but my interest was more historical. I wanted to know how love evolved. And tears. And laughter. And families. And kindness and murder. So I signed on to be an anthropologist.

There are several sub-fields of anthropology – linguistics, cultural anthropology, archeology and physical anthropology – each of which is subdivided further according to specialty. I chose physical anthropology, sometimes also called human biology. This field has two principal quests. The first is to figure out how the human body evolved through time. The second seeks to know how our ancestors behaved and what that might tell us about ourselves today.

Most of the evidence that physical anthropologists work from comes in the form of bones. The shapes of bones, combined with any scars and prominences left on them by the muscles that once moved them, tell us how those bones once moved. Among primates, for example, a femur, humerus, or pelvis can indicate whether a creature walked on all fours (monkeys), brachiated in trees (apes), or walked on two legs – like humans.

But social behavior does not fossilize. A strategy arose therefore, which said that we should reconstruct the environment (forest, jungle, open plains, for example) that those bones originally were deposited in. Then we could study creatures that occupy a similar ecological niche and see how they behave. Perhaps you could make educated guesses about humans from studying our primate relatives’ behavior.

Hence, the famous Kenyan archaeologist Louis Leakey arranged for Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees at Gombe Forest, Dian Fossey to study mountain gorillas, and Birute Galdikas Brindamour to study orangutans in Malaysia. Those animals were all forest dwellers. Most anthropologists believed humans evolved out on the open savannah, so they sought a different animal model on which to base their speculations about human behavioral evolution.

In America, a Harvard researcher named Ervin de Vore popularized the study of open country baboons and promoted a (now-unaccepted) theory that these animals lived in organized troops where each animal played a defined social “role.”

All three of the women mentioned above became the subjects of National Geographic Society documentaries. They each wrote books. Their findings, their youth, their courage and their personal attractiveness made the field of animal studies, especially of primates, quite popular. Around the same time, several pop-science books became best sellers, most notably one titled “African Genesis,” by Robert Ardrey. Interest in the field of human evolution expanded rapidly.

Along came I.

I was a graduate student in anthropology, and I wanted to understand the evolution of human communication, especially language. My advisor had an ongoing research project with a troop of olive baboons in Gilgil, Kenya, and asked me to go there. I continued the project’s collection of long-range genealogical and ecological data about the animals, while I designed and carried out my own study.

For a year an a half, I lived in a little tin-roofed bungalow on the edge of a cliff in the Great Rift Valley. Occasionally cobras slithered nearby, puff adders too. And zebras sometimes stood on the lawn at night. And warthogs dug burrows big enough to capture a VW bus wheel. And guinea fowl cackled constantly in the morning.

There was also a resident dik-dik, the world’s smallest antelope. And, of course, baboons. Baboons went anywhere and everywhere they wanted, including my backyard to invade the trash pit, even when the trash was burning. They were brazen beyond belief. And big – the males easily as large as German shepherd dogs, but with grasping hands and canine teeth as large as a lion’s.

Everyday I followed them on foot as they made their rounds, up and down the cliffs, across the savannah, sometimes through large patches of acacia bush. March march march, rest at a water hole, or in the shade of a yellow fever tree, march march march again. Rest again. Until they finally chose a night shelter somewhere on a cliff side.

Once they’d settled in, I could go back to my own shelter and begin transcribing my notes of the day. Sometimes I could leave them for several hours and go rest or get started on my transcriptions earlier. But I nearly always needed to go out again and see where they were sleeping that night. Otherwise I might waste more than half a day trying to find them after they shuffled off to an area I hadn’t expected them to go to.

The results of all this? Well, after living in the highlands and walking so much I was in great shape and had a terrific lung capacity. I was a lean, mean evolutionary machine. And in terms of my research results: (1) I became the world’s expert at interpreting the baboon grunt, (2) I think I figured out how human laughter evolved, and (3) I learned that no matter how much one learns about the anatomy and evolution of human tear glands, there is no escaping heartache.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of the recently published memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Available in e-book and print formats, most easily at Amazon.com.