Chimpanzees pass on what they learn, just like humans

Human culture and society are based on the idea of ​​learning new things and teaching new generations how to do them. But this approach, known as accumulative culture, may not be unique to humans. Chimpanzees do the same thing, according to a new study.

Seed breaking chimpanzees. Image credit: Koops et al (2022).

Chimpanzees don’t automatically know what to do when they come across nuts and rocks. That simple bit of information may not seem like much, but it really says a lot about how they develop and impart knowledge.

Several groups of chimpanzees in Guinea have discovered that they can use tools to break nuts; others do not. The researchers wanted to see if other chimpanzees could figure out on their own how seed-breaking works, or if this knowledge could be passed on to the team that figured it out. If this really happens, it means that the transmitted information will be embedded in chimpanzee culture, just as it is in human culture.

To investigate this issue, a team led by a protozoan Kathelijne Koops from the University of Zurich set up an experiment where they gave another group of chimpanzees just 6 kilometers away from the group with everything they needed to crack open seeds – they even provided them with palm kernels.

Initially, chimpanzees were stimulated by stone tools. But they didn’t figure out how to crack the seeds, and after a few months, they gradually lost interest. The researchers then added a palm fruit to the experimental setup, to familiarize the chimpanzees with the food source. They even broke some nuts and placed them on top of the stone tools, to suggest them, and offered some nuts that were easier to break.

But no matter what they did, they couldn’t get the chimpanzees to open the seeds without being shown how.

Image credit: Koops et al (2022).

“Not a single Seringbara chimpanzee has had its seeds cracked, nor has it attempted to do so. Thus, local excitation/enhancement (grains and rocks) or end-state simulations (open-cracked nuts) did not induce grain cracking (re)innovation in wild chimpanzees. this field,” the researchers wrote in the study. “In summary, seed breaking was not independently innovated by wild chimpanzees in the West in field experiments.”

This strongly suggests that seed breaking is a behavior that chimpanzees teach in their group, just like humans. It is a form of social learning that allows human culture to develop increasingly more complex tools and technologies. This new discovery will force us to rethink how unique human culture really is.

“Our findings suggest that chimpanzees have more human-like cultural behaviors and do not simply invent a behavior using a complex tool such as a grain-cracking,” Koops said. “Our findings about wild chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, help shed light on what (and isn’t!) makes human culture unique. In particular, they show a greater continuum between chimpanzees and human cultural evolution than is commonly assumed, and that the human capacity for accumulating culture may have a common evolutionary origin. with chimpanzees. “

Previous experiments have suggested that primates in captivity can begin to use tools without being taught, but some researchers suspect that this may be because they observe humans using them. use tools and learn this behavior from them. This new experiment seems to show this idea to be true.

If humans and chimpanzees both exhibit accumulative culture, and since the two species are so closely related biologically, it makes sense that cumulative culture should also be a feature of their common ancestor. me with chimpanzees.

“Our findings suggest a higher continuum between chimpanzees and human cultural evolution than is commonly assumed,” the researchers conclude. .

Research published, published in Natural human behavior. Chimpanzees pass on what they learn, just like humans

James Brien

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