Human Evolution and the Chimpanzee Referential Doctrine

Publication Title

Annual Review of Anthropology

Publication Date


Document Type





Ardipithecus, Australopithecus, Gorilla, Pan, primate behavior, brain, human origins


Biological and Physical Anthropology


Chimpanzees are our closest living genomic relatives, but they lack the bipedal locomotion, markedly enlarged brains, and advanced communication skills of humans. This has led many to view them as “primitive” and to presume that their behavior and anatomy are also primitive. If true, they could serve as models of our last common ancestor (LCA), i.e., a territorially aggressive knuckle walker, reliant on vertical climbing and below-branch suspension to access the high canopy as a ripe-fruit frugivore. Ardipithecus now provides abundant information that the LCA differed substantially from chimpanzees (as well as bonobos and gorillas), both anatomically and behaviorally, and exhibited many characters that are more similar to those of modern humans than to any living ape. This major extension of the hominoid fossil record contravenes strict referential modeling based on the extant chimpanzee and greatly improves our ability to reconstruct the LCA more accurately, but only when viewed within the broader context of evolutionary ecology.