Why Do Baby Chimps Play With Dolls?

baby-chimps-play-dolls Credit: Stan Osolinski/Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

Wild chimps do not actually play with dolls at all, though a chimpanzee researcher and Harvard University faculty member named Richard Wrangham reported in 2010 that he had observed female chimpanzees in a specific location treating sticks in a manner that he thought to be similar to the way a human child might play with a doll. According to Wrangham's research, the adolescent female chimps were seen holding sticks in a manner that is similar to the way chimps hold their babies, a behavior that he did not observe reciprocated in male chimps. Wrangham also claims to have seen young male chimps in this same group using sticks in what he describes as a motion similar to that of a human boy playing with an airplane.

Though these findings may seem to indicate that there is an innate biological function behind gendered toy selection, a 2010 article from NPR.org indicates that these same behaviors have not been noticed in other groups of chimpanzees by other researchers, indicating that this may be a cultural behavior that is limited to this specific group of chimps. Additionally, other researchers have given toys to young chimps in the past, and findings from those studies revealed that female chimps were equally happy to play with stuffed toys and toy trucks.