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Monkeys' and apes' cultural learning

By JW Dowey - 12 Nov 2014 4:0:0 GMT
Monkeys' and apes' cultural learning

With a stone and a nut the bearded capuchin can easily demonstrate his tool-using ability, or his bad temper. Capuchin image; Credit: © Shutterstock

When we use a tool, the influence of culture is obvious. The role of ecology in 3 tool-using primates is to evolve material cultures that are driven by environmental opportunity. Kathelijne Koops, Elisabetta Visalberghi and Carel P. van Schaikof the Universities of Cambridge, Zurich and the Italian National Research Centre (CNR) are the authors in this paper go even further to suggest that environment, cognition and sociality form 3 sets of factors that influence invention, transmission and the retention of material culture. The paper in Biology Letters is known as- The ecology of primate material culture.

The chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii), bearded capuchins (Sapajus libidinosus) and, to a lesser extent, long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis aurea) are the only primates so far recorded to use tools as frequently and in such diverse fashions as we do. Did hominin technology expand so rapidly because of certain conditions that these species lack, or can we explain in other ways why these animals don’t adopt human habits as quickly as our ancestors did.

Chimpanzee are the closest to Homo sapiens, so we’ll concentrate on their variety of tools. Cultures of chimpanzee transmit their tool habit socially, just as we do. The exclusive nature of this cultural transmission can be used to identify the variability of behaviour with tools geographically, although ecological factors are not taken into account as alternative causes of behavioural variation. Food scarcity is a good example. Both chimpanzee populations and the bearded capuchins have their tool use associated with seasonal food shortage. In the Congo, some populations did not increase their insect-tool use when fruit was in short supply and generally, rare termite mounds in Guinea were not fished, while the numerous army ants were often taken. Again, nut-cracking was used a lot when the nuts were plentiful.

Some kind of necessity theory needs to be disregarded, then, according to these chimpanzee studies. Opportunity is the mother of invention in this case and practice seem to make perfect. The same applies to the scientists however, and there is much more to be done.

Resource density and number of encounters are prime candidates for environmental factors that influence material culture (1.) The social opportunity to see, practice and also allow a full variation in tool use then follows (2.) Finally, the understanding of the tool-use allows for a variety of learning abilities and even innovation, just as in human cultures. The social system of a species plays a full role in all this, but individual roles obviously play a great part. Another article, this time on baboon culture appeared here last week, for your interest.