Apes & Japes: Can Monkey Laughs Explain The Human Condition?

Researchers have found that chimpanzees use laughter to bond just like we do, vocalizing in ways that are uncannily human. But do they really get the joke?

Monkeying around
Monkeying around
Hervé Morin

The French humorist and keen observer of human nature François Rabelais once famously declared that "laughter is the property of man." Yet serious doubts on this affirmation can arise on a visit to any city zoo, where we see a wide range of facial expressions and laughter-like sounds coming from the monkey cage.

But are our primate cousins really chortling? The question has nagged primatologists for decades. One expert says we should turn the question around: "When I hear people laughing, what I am basically hearing is the laughter of a primate," says Bernard Thierry of France's national center of research (CNRS), at the University of Strasbourg.

But while human laughter arises in many different situations, and has various meanings, what we generally regard as the equivalent in primates only occurs in very stereotypical play situations, such as chasing or tickling.

So what does apes' laughter tell us? Is it just an unsophisticated communication tool used to set the terms of engagement - which in this case is just play - or does it also have a more "conversational" function, to help the animals bond with each other?

In order to get a clearer picture, Marina Davila-Ross and her colleagues at Britain's University of Portsmouth studied the behavior of 59 chimpanzees living in four groups at a chimpanzee sanctuary, the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, in Zambia. The British researcher's team filmed and analyzed more than 500 scenes of play, carefully noting the spontaneous laughter triggered by a fellow chimp's laugh, which they then defined as "responsive laughter." The films showed that play sessions lasted significantly longer when one playmate joined in the laughter of another.

Davila-Ross says that the biggest surprise was to find that animals that belonged to the most recently formed groups often imitated those from the more established groups made up of chimpanzees that had known each other for a longer time. "This suggests responsive laughter might be playing a special role in reinforcing social bonds," she explained.

The researcher believes her findings have parallels with what is called "conversational laughter" in humans, because when chimpanzees echoed their fellow creature's spontaneous laughter, it was always shorter in length, just like with humans. In both human and primate, the laughter seems to be a way of underpinning the connection of the social interaction. "These sorts of responses may lead to important advantages in co-operation and social communication - qualities that help explain why laughter and smiles have become integral tools of emotional intelligence in humans," she argues.

This is not Marina Davila-Ross' first foray into experiments on primates' laugher – and the related families that seem to exhibit something similar. In 2009, she methodically tickled the babies of humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas, and then analyzed their vocalizations. She found that the differences and similarities in the characteristics of each of their laughter – such as peak frequencies and patterns of inhalation and exhalation – matched with how closely related the species were.

Chimpanzees - our closest evolutionary relative – shared the most similarities with us. And two years before that, an orangutan's smile had caught her attention. She had been able to show that when one of them opened its mouth in one of their typical play expressions, its playmate would immediately respond in the same way.

Back in France, Bernard Thierry is not at all surprised by these latest observations from his colleague across the Channel. He is convinced that it is normal that an animal engaging in play activity with another would respond with similar vocalizations, or that these responses would not be symmetrical. Even if he doesn't agree with all of Davila-Ross' findings, he himself has focused for many years on the Macaque monkeys' expressions during play, which he believes are "the equivalent of the human smile."

Amongst the Macaque species he is studying, the ‘smile" where they bare their teeth can be used in several ways, either for a dominant monkey to introduce itself to another dominant, or as a sign to engage in peaceful activity. "In this sense, it is a meta-communication tool or cue, which gives information about the exchange," Thierry explains. "For example, it signifies that when they begin to exchange blows, it will be in a play mode and not an aggressive one."

All this begs the question about how deeply rooted laughter is in us. From the smiling Macaque monkey to the laughter of our own species, Homo sapiens, can we really conclude it is a continuum, with our chimpanzee cousins occupying some kind of intermediary position? Or have humans made an evolutionary leap into something completely new: where laughing as we do marks some key break with our primate past?

Defining what makes us singularly human still remains one of science's last frontiers. Maybe humor can help provide the answers? Because apart from some anecdotal evidence about performing chimpanzees (playing hide and seek), one thing is for sure: all monkeys, from the great apes to their smaller cousins, are completely impervious to the comedy of a situation. They don't do slapstick as we understand it.

Bernard Thierry explains: "From what we have observed, when animals stumble, they appear human and are consequently funny to us. But it means something altogether different to them." So when it comes to evolution and monkeying around, perhaps it is that little touch of cruelty that makes our laughter human.

Photo - tambako

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The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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