Primatology: what it is, what it studies and how it is researched

In science, there are two ways to find out how we were humans before. The first is to examine the vestiges of the past, that is, to collect the fossils and the remains of our ancestors, to compare them and to deduce from them what they should have been.

The other is to compare our behavior with that of the species closest to ours, that is to say those which are part of the order of the primates.

Primatology is a very interesting scientific discipline who, in addition to considering the fossil record, focuses its efforts on understanding the behavior of our parents like chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas to understand why we are the way we are. SEE MORE IN DEPTH.

    What is primatology?

    Primatology is the scientific discipline devoted to the study of primates, both through research into their behavior in the wild and through the fossil record of extinct primate species.

    Primates are a taxonomic order in which plantigrade five-toed mammals are included, terminating in nails on their limbs and possessing thumbs opposable to the rest on the upper limbs. In this order Homo sapiens, i.e. our species, is included.

    As a branch of science, primatology encompasses the knowledge of many disciplines such as biology, anthropology, ecology, psychology, philosophy and many others.

    From all these branches he manages to extract knowledge such as how the organs of primates work, what is their social behavior, how well they are able to think, whether they can learn human skills such as language …

    History of this scientific discipline

    Long before modern molecular biology and even before Charles Darwin and his well-known work The Origin of Species (1856) in which he already indicated his suspicions about the primate origin of Homo sapiens, Carl von Linnaeus (1707-1778) classified our species in the same group as the line of apes.

    This classification was made on the basis of the similarity of species to each other. He saw that apes, chimpanzees, and orangutans looked a lot like humans, and for this reason, he put them in the same taxon.

    Linnaeus lived long before Darwin and his modern evolutionary ideas, but of course something must have made him think he saw similarities not only between these primates and humans, but also between other species such as dogs. and wolves. or cats and tigers.

    He was a great visionary in this regard because, without having at his disposal tools such as molecular biology, he quickly knew how to place species such as chimpanzees and Homo sapiens in the family tree, Which we know share about 98% of the genetic material.

    Then Darwin and his work and all the scandal generated by scientific society became more and more aware of the evolutionary proximity between these apes and humans. However, despite this knowledge, It wasn’t until the 1920s that interest in perennial primates began to show itself as a rose. Until this time, scientific efforts have focused on studying the fossil remains of hominids and possible links between primate primates and early Homo sapiens.

    The reason why it was preferred to study the dusty lifeless remains rather than the gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates that could be observed full of life is probably due to the difficult acceptance at the time of evolutionary facts.

    According to the mentality of the time, the idea of ​​descending from the frog was unpleasant, so it must have been more difficult for the proud scientific community to find answers to what human beings are by analyzing the behavior of little furry men. that go from one branch to another.

    But despite all that the first studies with current primates as protagonists have ended. At first, they focused on the behavior of chimpanzees and how they were able to solve problems of a different nature. Later, the observation fell to the baboons, discovering that sex was a fundamental basis of their society and, surely, that of the Homo sapiens as well.

    At a time when codes governing experimentation were non-existent for human experiments, these were unthinkable for animals. That’s why more than one unscrupulous scientist claiming to see if he could play God makes artificial insemination crosses of higher primates with humans.

    Fortunately, this sin against nature did not give birth, because despite the similarities between primates, the genetic differences are large enough that there is no hybridization of any kind.

    Over time he got to see this it was not smart to study primates only in aspects such as their biology and psychology under extremely controlled laboratory conditions.. To be able to know how much they look like humans, you need to know how they behave, and the only way they do that naturally is in their natural habitat.

    For this reason, the tendency of primatologists was to leave the cold rooms of animal experiments to go to the field in Africa, where the most interesting species of primates are found.

      What data do primates give us?

      When it comes to biology, there is a lot that we can learn about ourselves by observing the anatomy of primates and how it has changed over the course of evolutionary history. It’s here that we can speak of two ways of comparing ourselves to them: analogy and homology.


      The analogy serves us to infer the similar functions of organs and other parts of the body of two or more species, by comparing their shape. like that, it is through the comparative study of analogy that we can know how extinct species acted or moved in life compare their fossil remains with the animal bone structures that still exist.

      If we observe a characteristic which has a particular function in a genus, we suppose that this same function was also exhibited by the extinct species, observing that in its fossil remains it also had this anatomical characteristic. With all of this, we can draw conclusions about the behavior of an already extinct primate by drawing an analogy with a similar current way of life.


      Homology is used to reconstruct family trees of the evolution of species. It is about establishing the relationship that we have with a common ancestor from the similarity of the shapes or the members, how they went to obtain the characteristics that are present today, in this case, in our body. non-humans and Homo sapiens can find several structures in common that differentiate us from other orders of mammals.

      In primates, five toes can be found on each hand and foot, along with some characteristic skeletal bones, such as the collarbone. The fingers are prehensile, having visible yellows and flat nails instead of the claws that we can find in other mammals., Just like lions, cats or dogs.

      As we climb the evolutionary tree, we can see that our muzzles shrink, flatten out, and become the nose and mouth as separate parts.

      In addition, we have stereoscopic vision, that is, we have overlapping vision in both eyes, and it is this sense that has evolved very visibly, to such an extent that the sense of smell loses its importance.

      In all primates we can observe that the brain is a fairly advanced organ compared to other mammals. The brain has developed gradually, especially in certain areas such as the cerebral cortex, so important to humans that this is what basically gives us our intelligence such as we understand it.

      Another very interesting aspect shared by other primates is the gestation period, which is characterized by its length (humans 9 months, chimpanzees 7 months, gorillas 8 months). It has also been observed that among primates we tend to give birth at night.

      important figures

      The most prominent figure in primatology is undoubtedly the English primatologist Jane Goodall. This scientist, member of the Order of the British Empire and of the French Legion, has dedicated herself to studying for more than five decades (started in 1960) the social links of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, contributing to great discoveries.

      His determination and conviction to be able to observe behaviors that no other researcher had observed before have earned him wide recognition. Additionally, Goodall is known for her animal welfare work.

      Another figure is that of Dian Fossey, The work of Karisoke Research in Rwanda has shown that gorillas can get used to the presence of humans. Fossey learned that female gorillas are sometimes transferred between groups, and gorillas are able to eat their own feces to recycle nutrients.

      The third major figure in primatology is BIRUTÉ GALDIKAS, who spent nearly 12 years trying to get a group of orangutans from Borneo, Indonesia, to get used to his presence. Galdikas used modern statistical techniques to complete his doctoral thesis in 1978 in which he explained orangutan behavior and interactions.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Bramblet, C. (1984). The behavior of primates: guidelines and perspectives, Mexico: Fund for Economic Culture.
      • Haraway, Donna J. (1990). Visions of primates. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-90294-6.
      • Goodall, J. (1966). Behavior of free chimpanzees (doctoral thesis). Cambridge University.

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