Testing Chimpanzees for Cultural Transmission

The amount of evidence that is out there in support of chimpanzee culture is rather overwhelming if you ask me. Most primatologists will agree that these socially, intellectually, and emotionally complex great apesChimpanzee Observation have unique behaviors and learning systems that begin to mimic our own cultures and social structures.

In a new Current Biology research paper, the people from the Scottish Primate Research Group along with Frans de Waal, have reported their observations where they,

“taught individual chimpanzees one of two ways to solve complex foraging tasks, and observed how the different techniques spread across two sets of three groups. The chimps had to manipulate a combination of buttons, levers or discs to extract treats from cubes….

….[then the chimps] in the two groups learned quickly how to work the devices when watching a peer who had been trained in one of the two possible sets of solutions.

Within a few days, most chimps mastered the techniques that had been “seeded” this way in their group…

…The cubes were then moved into the view of a second set of chimp groups, so they could observe their respective neighbors solving the tasks. The new groups learned the same techniques as demonstrated in the adjacent enclosure, and then passed their set of tricks on to a third group in another round of experiments….

…Next [they] want to unravel exactly how chimp culture spreads: “We need to see how status and prestige of different animals affect who learns from whom.”

An analysis of Whiten’s group’s studies already shows that the order in which individuals in each group picked up new traditions was similar for foraging tasks, but not for unrelated tasks, giving first insights into the dynamics of cultural transmission.”

Their paper is titled, “Transmission of Multiple Traditions within and between Chimpanzee Groups,” and their abstract ends with the following conclusion: parsimony suggests culture was shared with [chimpanzee and human’s] common ancestor. Pretty bold statement, which has some flaws, because chimpanzee’s cultural behaviors could have evolved independently of humans just as likely as they could have evolved dependently of humans — if that makes sense.

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