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Acquisition of a socially learned tool use sequence in chimpanzees: implications for cumulative culture

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Gillian L. Vale, Sarah J. Davis, Susan P. Lambeth, Steven J. Schapiro, Andrew Whiten

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Cumulative culture underpins humanity's enormous success as a species. Claims that other animals are incapable of cultural ratcheting are prevalent, but are founded on just a handful of empirical studies. Whether cumulative culture is unique to humans thus remains a controversial and understudied question that has far-reaching implications for our understanding of the evolution of this phenomenon. We investigated whether one of human's two closest living primate relatives, chimpanzees, are capable of a degree of cultural ratcheting by exposing captive populations to a novel juice extraction task. We found that groups (N = 3) seeded with a model trained to perform a tool modification that built upon simpler, unmodified tool use developed the seeded tool method that allowed greater juice returns than achieved by groups not exposed to a trained model (non-seeded controls; N = 3). One non-seeded group also discovered the behavioral sequence, either by coupling asocial and social learning or by repeated invention. This behavioral sequence was found to be beyond what an additional control sample of chimpanzees (N = 1 group) could discover for themselves without a competent model and lacking experience with simpler, unmodified tool behaviors. Five chimpanzees tested individually with no social information, but with experience of simple unmodified tool use, invented part, but not all, of the behavioral sequence. Our findings indicate that (i) social learning facilitated the propagation of the model-demonstrated tool modification technique, (ii) experience with simple tool behaviors may facilitate individual discovery of more complex tool manipulations, and (iii) a subset of individuals were capable of learning relatively complex behaviors either by learning asocially and socially or by repeated invention over time. That chimpanzees socially learn increasingly complex behaviors through social and asocial learning suggests that humans' extraordinary ability to do so was built on such prior foundations.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)635-644
Number of pages10
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number5
Early online date2 May 2017
StatePublished - Sep 2017

    Research areas

  • Culture, Cumulative culture, Cultural evolution, Social learning, Ratcheting

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