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Chimps Have Culture November 3, 1999
by Luscinia Brown-Hovelt

New research has shown conclusively that chimpanzees have culture. Previously many were unprepared to grant the use of the word "culture" in reference to chimpanzees, but recently A. Whiten of the Scottish Primate Research Group, School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, and colleagues have recognized chimpanzee behavioral patterns that, in the journal Nature, they say "resemble those in human societies, in which differences between cultures are constituted by a multiplicity of variations in technology and social customs."

No less than 39 distinct behaviors, such as aimed throw and rain dance, have been recognized and cataloged in seven chimpanzee populations across Africa indicating that the behaviors are transmitted socially rather than genetically. It is possible to see young chimpanzees observe adults and then practice the behaviors. According to Whiten and colleagues, genetics "cannot account for the observed variability," in part because they "found no evidence that habits vary more between, than within, the three existing subspecies of chimpanzee." Using a twig to fish termites out of their nests is a particularly good example of a learned behavior where the young chimpanzees carefully watch the elders and try to copy them.

It is unclear whether chimpanzees are unique in this behavioral respect, or if other animals were studied in as much depth we would find similar patterns. Robert Barton of the anthropology department, Durham University, says that "Wherever social learning contributes to the development of behaviors, different 'cultures' are likely to emerge." He notes that bird populations have variations of a song that is specific to their species and says that this has also been found to be the case with whales. He adds, though, that "only chimpanzees have so far been shown to exhibit cultural variation in a wide variety of behaviors, including foraging and social behaviors." Arguments have generally stated that culture in animals is as complex as in humans because the methods by which humans pass on behaviors, by teaching and learning, are not seen among animals. However, this has now been documented among chimpanzees.

In his book The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior, anthropologist Craig Stanford of the University of Southern California brings to attention the chief differences between humans and chimpanzees, namely bipedalism and larger brain size in humans. What causes humans to have larger brains has long been hotly debated. What are the implications of evidence of chimpanzees having culture for early hominid evolution and the development of the human brain? Barton says that the key questions are "what led to the cultural explosion in later hominids, in what way was this based on traits shared with chimpanzees, and what were the unique traits behind it?"

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America