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Shirley C. Strum

Founding Faculty of the Department of Anthropology

Shirley C. Strum began her studies of nonhuman primates at a time when we knew little about primates.  During the past 44 years (Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project, her focus has grown from understanding the socio-ecology and cognition of savanna baboons to appreciating the challenges for nonhuman and human primates in the Anthropocene.  Baboons were initially used to help anthropologists frame the behavior and evolutionary adaptation of the earliest human ancestors.  Such simple referential models are inadequate in light of current knowledge of nonhuman primates and Old World monkeys and apes, in particular.  However, after four decades of work baboons now offer a striking contrast to current interpretations of the evolution of primate (and by comparison, human) behavior thereby setting a new baseline for the start of the human experiment.

Baboons are socially and ecologically sophisticated.  They use social strategies of competition and defense despite males being built by evolution as fighting machines.  These options rely on intelligent tactics, social investments, and careful management of relationships.  Strum was the first to uncover this primate social complexity which helped build the case that animals had minds and not just brains.  This view of social complexity also initiated a shift away from the previous aggressive competition focus of primate societies.

Documenting the “messiness” of baboon lives in real time offers a counterpoint to ideas about the genetic determinism of adaptive behaviors.  Discoveries which include documenting the dynamism of the male dominance hierarchy and its poor fit to indicators of resource monopolization, friendships between baboons as part of effective strategies, the development and then disappearance of hunting by baboons, and differences between groups to the humanization of wild landscapes and its impact on baboon socio-ecology suggest that evolution selects the “good enough”, not the “best”.

Strum also worked in Science Studies, particularly a collaboration with Bruno Latour, and later Linda Fedigan (Primate Encounter: models of science, gender and society) and in conservation (Natural Connections: perspectives in community based conservation).

The Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project’s (UNBP) motto is: science to understand our past; conservation to safeguard our future.  This work includes the first research on primate crop raiding, the first primate translocation, the first primate project to implement Community Based Conservation.  Other activities and research include: primate and cultural ecotourism, natural resource management, a focus on the future of pastoralism, conservation education and invasion ecology (Opuntia stricta) and biological control.

Other conservation related interests include: environmental ethics in cross-cultural translation, conservation and the human predicament: a multidisciplinary framework for understanding the biodiversity crisis, media and conservation, restoration techniques, human-wildlife conflict, and human modification of landscapes and the future of the “wild”

She is also currently collaborating with Dr. Joan Silk whose Comparative Analysis of Baboon Sociality (CABS) project will include both long-term and new data from the UNBP study groups.

The research baboons, the Pumphouse Gang and its descendants, have been featured in numerous award winning documentaries including David Attenborough’s Life of Primates and the Discovery Channel’s Baboon Tales narrated by Glen Close.

Almost Human: a journey into the world of baboons 2001 (second edition) presents the unfolding scientific drama of the baboon research.  Currently she is working on a follow up to Almost Human entitled:  Darwin’s Monkey Puzzle: why baboons can’t become human.  See “Darwin’s monkey: why baboons can’t become human”, 2012, Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 55:3-23 for a summary of the implications of her long-term research and The Perfect Storm: land use change promotes Opuntia stricta’s invasion of pastoral rangelands in Kenya, 2015 Journal of Arid Environments 118: 37-47.

Strum divides her year between Kenya and UC San Diego and is resident for the Spring term only.


BA: University of California, Berkeley, 1969 (Anthropology)

MA: University of California, Berkeley, 1972 (Physical Anthropology)

PhD: University of California, Berkeley, 1976 (Physical Anthropology)

 Ongoing research in Kenya includes

  1. Testing hypotheses about why primates live in social groups
  2. The role of fallback foods in the context of droughts and lessons for human evolution
  3. A dynamic model of social group
  4. Why baboon groups fission and fuse
  5. An alternative view of female baboon hierarchy
  6. Costs and benefits of the impact of new food resources on reproduction and implications for infant socialization
  7. The ontogeny of social awareness in baboons and the effects of maternal responsiveness and secondary attachments on infant social development

The Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project’s motto is: science to understand our past; conservation to safeguard our future.  This meant first understanding the socio-ecology of baboons in order to use the best science in pioneering innovative approaches to the conservation and management of primates during the current Biodiversity Crisis.  The work includes understanding and implementing solutions for

Primate crop raiding
Primate translocation
Community based conservation (embedding conservation in communities and communities in conservation)
Primate and Cultural Ecotourism
Natural resource management
The future of pastoralism
Art for Conservation Education
Invasion ecology (Opuntia stricta) and biological control

Other conservation related interests include:

Environmental ethics in cross-cultural translation
Conservation and the Human Predicament: a multidisciplinary framework for understanding the biodiversity crisis
Media and conservation
Restoration techniques
Human-wildlife conflict
Human modification of landscapes and the future of the “wild”


Baboons R Us:

Conservation Africa:

Africa Conservation Centre-US: