New Views on Baboons

A fresh look at baboons from five decades in the field.

Baboons get a bum rap.

Commonly seen as ugly, vicious and stupid, they’re often the butt of a joke. But Shirley Strum, the UC San Diego biological anthropologist who’s been studying wild olive baboons in Kenya for the past 50 years, knows they’re the opposite of their stereotype. She knows this firsthand from a lifetime of fieldwork, like Jane Goodall with chimpanzees or Diane Fossey with gorillas. “Baboons are smart,” she says. “They’re adaptable, flexible, collaborative and incredibly complex.”

While Strum’s discoveries about baboon society (yes, society) challenge previous scientific notions, the popular perception still has a ways to go. Look up “baboon” in the dictionary, and after the definition of a genus that includes several species, you’ll find an epithet—a person that’s dimwitted, brutish and crude.

As unfair as the insult is, it is true that baboons are big and strong, among the world’s largest monkeys.  They also have close-set eyes and dog-like muzzles with menacingly sharp canine teeth. Unlike many simian cousins we find “cute,” baboons grow out of their adorable baby faces. And their characteristic four-legged stride? That can look intimidating, like a bully’s saunter, especially on a full-grown male with a large mane.

None of these features help their image, nor do the bright pink swellings on their bottoms, which even Strum says “aren’t very appealing—except to other baboons.” While Strum won’t argue with anyone’s aesthetic preferences in primates, she can and has been arguing for years with what people think they know about baboon behavior.

First and foremost, baboons are anything but stupid. In fact, in Kenya and other parts of Africa and Arabia where they roam wild, local people who live off the land tend to come into conflict with baboons precisely because they’re as smart as they are. In places where baboons have learned to raid food crops or even carry off small livestock, they’re seen as pests, a threat to human livelihood.

Because of this, Strum’s work in Kenya has evolved through the decades to include not only observation of baboon behavior but also a good deal of conflict resolution between people and baboons. With human encroachment and a changing climate, it has additionally grown to include conservation.

But “Darwin’s monkey,” as Strum has come to call baboons—due to Darwin’s frequent references to them and how they’ve also affected her views on natural selection—can provide us with valuable insights on our own existential dilemma. Yet before Strum could draw any conclusions, she first had to meet a few baboons.

Female researcher with brown hair and a blue jacket among a group of brown baboons.
Biological anthropology professor Shirley Strum has studied seven generations of wild olive baboons in Kenya over the past 50 years.

Strum arrived in Kenya on September 11, 1972, her 25th birthday. Born in Stuttgart, Germany, and raised in San Diego, Strum was a graduate student at UC Berkeley when she first set foot in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. She didn’t expect to stay and make a life there; she didn’t think she could live without the ocean. But when she stood atop a rift escarpment and could see for miles across the landscape, she remembers thinking, “This is almost as good.” Before long, she fell in love with the “great big skies” and seeing all the animals there—lions, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, zebras, giraffes and more, all of them “free and as big as life,” she says. “That had quite an impact, too.”

Still, she didn’t anticipate 50 years. She hadn’t even intended to focus on baboons, and during her first season in the field, she remembers worrying if she’d be able to tell the baboons apart. “Males and females were very different in size, but otherwise nothing was obvious. They were a puzzle,” she says.

She came back for another research season, then another. And over time, as her familiarity with the baboons grew, so did her fascination. Today, the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project, which Strum has directed since 1976, ranks as one of the longest-running primate research projects anywhere in the world. She’s also come to know and—she admits—sometimes even love seven generations of baboon families.

For almost that entire span of time, Strum has shuttled between Kenya and San Diego, teaching in the Department of Anthropology every spring and living in Africa the rest of the year. She and husband David “Jonah” Western, currently the chairman of the African Conservation Centre, raised their children, Guy and Carissa, in both California and Africa.

Read “Wild Youth” with Carissa Western ’08

But in the beginning, Strum says, she was in “a bit of a bubble.” She didn’t interact much with Kenyans—or the baboons, for that matter. The researcher before her had watched the initial study group, “the Pumphouse Gang,” from a car. Strum’s first innovation was to get out of that vehicle and walk, habituating the baboons to her presence just enough that they would act naturally.

“It took just a little while to figure out that they weren’t like they had been described,” she says. “It took longer to figure out what was going on.”

Since male baboons are nearly twice as big as females and look like they’re built for aggression, the assumption was they have a male-dominated society ruled by violence. But Strum discovered that’s not so.

It’s not that baboons are pacifists exactly—they have their scuffles and shows of dominance. They’ll hassle each other over different matters. But deadly confrontations with other baboons? Not really. And the most belligerent don’t always win either, not in terms of food resources or their numbers of sexual consorts. What matters more to baboons’ survival, Strum has found, is not brute force but cleverness and a complex network of social relationships.

Also contrary to conventional wisdom at the time, Strum has shown that baboon society is composed of female-based families, where females matter to the troop just as much, if not more, than males. “Females influence where the group goes,” Strum says. “They’re the ones who police and lead their families. They do all the things that we thought males did.”

Where males continually contest their status, rank among the females is inherited and rarely changes, providing the troop with much-needed stability. Though very different dynamics operate in the male and female hierarchies, “what holds these two together,” Strum says, “are sexual behavior, of course—and also friendship.”

In the early days, Strum resisted describing what she saw among baboons as “friendships.” It was too anthropomorphic a term for her scientific taste. But she’s decided that’s exactly what they are. Like human friendships, these are relationships that take time to form. Baboons work to build and maintain bonds of trust outside their families. They support each other, they collaborate, and they’re sensitive to measures of reciprocity.

Several benefits of friendship stand out: Friends are more likely to mate, for one. And female baboons are able to drop off their babies with male friends for babysitting. The males, in turn, make friends with the babies, and Strum has shown that the babies can become part of an effective and non-aggressive strategy for putting an end to a skirmish. When a male isn’t doing too well against another male, for example, he might grab a baby friend and hold it on his belly. The rest of the troop will usually ignore any scuffles among males, but if a baby starts screaming, they’ll rush to assist. By borrowing the baby, who will scream not in general angst but at the aggressive opponent, the male has co-opted the support of the entire troop. Clever.

Also exemplary, Strum says, is a moment depicted in Baboon Tales, a 1998 documentary film on Strum’s work: An infant named “Roger” had been injured and couldn’t keep up with the troop, Strum recalls. But a friend of his came back from some distance away to try and get him to follow her. She stayed and groomed him until he got enough energy to catch up. “That kind of care and concern,” says Strum, her voice catching a little, “from a friend, not a relative but from a playmate, is another window into the importance of social bonds to baboons.”

When Strum gives talks, some of her favorite photographs to show depict a huge male baboon with a tiny baby. It’s this kind of picture that she finds most symbolic and relevant to their society.

“Yes, you can see aggression—at times,” Strum says. “But the key feature is really collaboration.”

The examples of collaboration that Strum has witnessed over the years and the “whole array of relationships and roles” have led her to conclude that baboons have the most complex and sophisticated primate society outside of humans. Some of that complexity and sophistication are covered in her general-audience book Almost Human, published in 1987 and now in its second edition, as well as several documentary films, including the aforementioned Baboon Tales and David Attenborough’s Life of Primates. But with another book coming soon and another film in development, Strum hopes to show even more fully the complexity she sees as so defining.

Women in hat and a white collared shirt speaks to another woman with dark curly hair and a blue and red patterned shirt.
Collaboration is a key feature of baboon society, Strum says, and vital to our own future, too. As such, Strum’s work has come to include community-based conservation and other projects.

Baboons may have a complex society, but when you add humans to the mix, things get complicated.  Human–baboon conflict is pretty common, and early on, Strum sided with the monkeys. “At first, I was all for the baboons and against the people,” she says. While she had no trouble accepting baboon norms, “respect for the baboons’ human neighbors—that was harder for me to learn.” But over time, Strum has become deeply involved in working with Kenyans, including the indigenous Maasai, who are trying to maintain their traditional pastoral way of life.

The Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project would become the first primate project to employ Kenyans as parabehaviorists or para-ecologists and begin engaging in community-based conservation. Strum helped start and continues to support several schools. To help local Maasai women, the most marginalized of a marginalized tribe, she helped create a cultural center for eco-tourism and bio-enterprises such as making juice from an invasive cactus that was marketed to tourists and provided the women with income. All the while, Strum is careful to point out she’s not “saving” people. “Respect is key,” Strum says, as is collaboration—without these, no one wins, not people or animals.

To help save the baboons, however, her project would become the first to translocate a group of primates. After some baboons became intense crop raiders, Strum moved three troops to an entirely new environment, more arid and drought-prone, with half the annual rainfall of their previous home. Though survival was uncertain, the troops thrived, with one main group growing from 36 to, at last count, 167.

Studying “Darwin’s monkey” for five decades has changed Strum’s views on both humans and evolution itself. Because these monkeys and humans are the only primates to have left the forest and succeed on the open savanna, baboons were once thought to be the perfect model for learning about early hominids. And although  Strum long ago lost interest in looking to baboons for clues about our own past (without language, they just can’t be human), she hasn’t stopped thinking about what they have to teach us. The data she’s collected on baboon society throughout years of change and environmental challenges have convinced her that evolution doesn’t select for “the best,” just the “good enough.”

Strum’s baboons have passed a lot of existential tests with “good enough.” After translocation, they succeeded in a less-than-ideal environment, learning to find new sources of water and new foods to eat. Different baboons took different approaches, and several survival solutions seemed to work just fine. Yet through it all, they’ve been helped immeasurably by their social networks. “Baboons may not use or make material tools in the wild,” Strum says, “but they do skillfully craft friendships.” And that, she believes, is an indispensable tool for survival.

Yet as adaptable and flexible as baboons are, humans still rule the planetary roost. “We live in the age of the Anthropocene,” Strum says. “Landscapes all over the world are being humanized.” And while baboons aren’t endangered, she sees the possibility.

“Since people are part of the problem,” Strum says, quoting her husband, “people have to be part of the solution.” For the sake of both baboons and people, we will have to learn again how to co-exist with wildlife and how to collaborate better among ourselves. So, while baboons can’t become any more human, perhaps humans can learn to be a bit more like baboons.