Chimps Show Hallmark of Human Culture, Study Finds

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
August 26, 2005

Researchers have discovered that chimpanzees not only teach each other new and useful behaviors, but conform to their group's preferred techniques for performing them—a hallmark of human culture.

Observers have previously reported that wild chimps demonstrate more than three dozen different behaviors that have no apparent ecological or genetic origin. This diversity suggests that there are distinct ape cultures.

The notion assumes that chimps transmit culture—teaching and learning behaviors generation after generation. But the theory is very difficult to test and prove in a controlled experiment outside of a laboratory.

So researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Emory University in Atlanta devised an experiment to test the proposition. The results were published online August 21 in the science journal Nature.

Learning and Teaching

The scientists constructed a box in which a desirable food was hidden behind a trap. Captive chimps could release the food by using a stick to move the trap in either of two ways. Researchers dubbed these the "poke" and "lift" methods.

Scientists then isolated a high-ranking female of one group from her companions and taught her the poke method to release food. A female of high rank from a second group was taught the lift method.

None of the other members of the groups were allowed to watch the training.

Finally, researchers used a third group as a control, presenting them with the box and sticks, but teaching them nothing about how to use them.

Scientists then let the chimp groups watch their matriarch use the technique she had learned. To get the food, each dominant female consistently used the method she had been taught. The other chimps watched, often intensely, for over 36 hours spread over ten days.

During this period, 15 chimps in the two study groups successfully used one method or the other to get food, and they picked up the behavior quickly. Median times for learning the techniques in both groups were under a minute.

In the meantime, the six chimps in the control group were stymied. In more than four hours of manipulating the sticks, they were unable to extract a single piece of food.

Continued on Next Page >>


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