Chimpanzee cultures

  • July 21, 2015
Chimpanzee cultures

Research provides new evidence of cultural diversification between neighbouring chimpanzee communities

“Given the close evolutionary relationship between chimpanzees and humans, insights into what drives cultural diversification in our closest living relatives will in turn shed light on how cultural differences emerge and are maintained between adjacent groups in human societies.”

Kathelijne Koops

For centuries it has been thought that culture is what distinguishes humans from other animals, but over the past decade this idea has been repeatedly called into question. Cultural variation has been identified in a growing number of species in recent years, ranging from primates to cetaceans. Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, show the most diverse cultures aside from humans, most notably, in their use of a wide variety of tools.

The method traditionally used to establish the presence of culture in wild animals compares behavioural variation across populations and excludes all behavioural patterns that can be explained by genetic or environmental differences across sites. Nevertheless, it is impossible to conclusively rule out the influence of genetics and environmental conditions in geographically distant populations.

To circumnavigate this problem, researchers, led by Dr Kathelijne Koops [2006], took a new approach. “We compared neighbouring chimpanzee groups living under similar environmental conditions, which allows for the investigation of fine scale cultural differences, whilst keeping genetics constant,” said Koops.

She and colleagues from Kyoto University and Freie Universität Berlin compared the length of tools used for ‘ant-dipping’ between two neighbouring chimpanzee communities, M-group and S-group, in the Kalinzu Forest, Uganda. Dipping for army ants is one of the hallmark examples of culture in chimpanzees and involves the use of a stick to extract the highly aggressive army ants from their underground nests.

Previous research has shown that ant-dipping tool length varied across chimpanzee study sites in relation to the army ant species (Dorylus spp.) that were present. So Koops compared the availability of the different species of army ants and the length of dipping tools used in the two adjacent chimpanzee communities.

The researchers found that M-group tools were significantly longer than S-group tools, despite identical army ant species availability. Considering the lack of ecological differences between the two communities, the tool length difference was concluded to be cultural. “Our findings highlight how cultural knowledge can generate small-scale cultural diversification in neighbouring groups,” said Koops.

“Given the close evolutionary relationship between chimpanzees and humans, insights into what drives cultural diversification in our closest living relatives will in turn shed light on how cultural differences emerge and are maintained between adjacent groups in human societies,” said Koops, who conducted the work at Cambridge University’s Division of Biological Anthropology and at Zurich University’s Anthropological Institute and Museum.

The research is published today in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

*Picture credit: Kathelijne Koops. 

Latest News

Affecting change for the Māori community

Self-determination lies at the centre of Māori culture. “It’s a way of life,” says Chris Tooley. That idea is also at the heart of his PhD studies at Cambridge and his subsequent work in Parliament and in the community. Chris grew up with a strong sense of being part of the Māori community. He has ancestral […]

On the COVID frontline

Three Gates Cambridge scholars who have been on the medical frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic will be speaking about their experiences at a virtual event next weekend. The event, organised by the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association, will be moderated by Elizabeth Dzeng, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco in the […]

New game tackles Covid conspiracies

A new online game that puts players in the shoes of a purveyor of fake pandemic news is the latest tactic in the UK Government’s efforts to tackle the deluge of coronavirus misinformation that is misleading many and costing lives across the world. Launched to the public today, the Go Viral! game has been developed by the […]

“Democracy does not work on a ‘trust me’ basis”

When Jennifer Gibson started her MPhil at Cambridge in 2001 as part of the inaugural class of Gates Scholars, no-one knew what it meant to be a Gates Cambridge Scholar. Twenty years later, Jennifer is now a human rights lawyer focused on national security issues, something she never could have anticipated, but which she credits in no small part […]