Our Primate Family

A primate is any member of the biological order Primates, the group that contains all lemurs, monkeys, apes, and humans. The English singular primate is a back-formation from the Latin name Primates, which itself was the plural of the Latin primas (“one of the first, excellent, noble”). Colin Groves lists about 350 species of primates in Primate Taxonomy.

All primates have five fingers (pentadactyly), a generalized dental pattern, and a primitive (unspecialized) body plan. Another distinguishing feature of primates is fingernails. Opposing thumbs are also a characteristic primate feature, but are not limited to this order…. In primates, the combination of opposing thumbs, short fingernails (rather than claws) and long, inward-closing fingers is a relic of the ancestral practice of brachiating through trees. Forward-facing color binocular vision was also useful for the brachiating ancestors of humans, particularly for finding and collecting food. All primates, even those that lack the features typical of other primates (like lorises), share eye orbit characteristics that distinguish them…


Jane Goodall
Dr. Jane Goodall touched by Jou Jou
Photo: © Michael Nichols from Brutal Kinship (Aperture)

Chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestry that is evident in our genes, intellect, emotions, and behaviors. We are different branches of the same evolutionary tree.

Common origins

Humans and chimpanzees evolved in Africa from a common ancestor millions of years ago.1  Years of study have traced and documented our shared origins. Our understanding of chimpanzees has enhanced our knowledge of not only them but also ourselves.

Chimpanzees are the closest species to human beings. Fossil and genetic evidence show that human and chimpanzee DNA are approximately 96-98 percent identical. Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than to gorillas. As a result, chimpanzees and humans share physiological, emotional, and behavioral traits.

Anthropologists estimate that modern human and chimpanzee species diverged from a common prehistoric ancestor between 5 and 10 million years ago (a theory Charles Darwin first proposed in 1871).2 Some scientists believe that chimpanzees—both the common and pygmy (bonobos)—should be classified in the same genus (Homo) as human beings instead of being classified alongside orangutans, gibbons and gorillas. Physiologist Jared Diamond went so far as to call humans “the third chimpanzee.” 3

Like human children, young chimpanzees learn life skills via observation and imitation. They in turn pass these lessons on to their children, resulting in a complex socio-cultural system.

Bodies and health

Biologically, chimpanzees and humans are very much alike. Our bodies are similar in structure, although chimpanzees have significantly more muscle mass, bone density, and consequent strength. An adult male chimpanzee has six to eight times the strength of an adult man.

Both species have relatively long life spans—chimpanzees can live 50 years or longer. 4 (Presently the oldest known living chimpanzee, Cheeta, is 77 years old.) Generations of chimpanzees live and form long-term relationships with each other, fostering chimpanzee culture.

As do humans, chimpanzees have self-awareness. They can recognize themselves in a mirror. 5 Given this keen sense of self, chimpanzees’ individuality is as diverse as it is in humans. There are chimpanzees who show enormous kindness or intelligence and those who would be described as “slow” or more selfish. Some are gentle and nurturing, while others are bullies. The richness of their personalities is strikingly similar to that of humans, and makes for their complex emotional needs and the rich social fabric of their lives. Along with their self-awareness comes their self-interest. Chimpanzees have the challenge of establishing their place within their society. Some are better skilled at accomplishing this than others. But, within chimpanzee society, there is a place for each member—be it one of status or marginal involvement.

The link between physical and mental health has been observed in both humans and chimpanzees. Adverse mental states such as grief or depression have detrimental effects on physical health in both species. Conversely, positive emotions boost general well-being. 6 Conflicts arise in chimpanzee society just as they do in human society, and chimpanzees are as capable of joyful reconciliation as they are of confrontation.

Chimpanzees and humans share long life spans and high intelligence. They also share the capacity for establishing long-term relationships and accumulated memories, and a sense of time. 


[1] Stanford, C. (1995, May-June). Chimpanzee Hunting Behavior and Human Evolution. American Scientist.
[2] Hecht, J. (2003, May 19). Chimps are human, gene study implies. New Scientist.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Conservation International. (2002, September). The Western Chimpanzee.
[5] Bright, M. (1994). Intelligence in Animals. London: Toucan Books.
[6] Jane Goodall Institute. (n.d.). So like Us.; and Jane Goodall Institute. (n.d.) Similarities Between Chimpanzees and Human Beings.


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