By Russell Tenofsky
Scientists from the University of Portsmouth have discovered that chimpanzees acquire food preparation techniques by observing and learning from others – a trait the scientists claim to be an essential component of “culture.” As published in the journal Animal Cognition, Bruce Rawlings and Dr. Marina Davila-Ross studied three separate groups of chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia, Africa. The scientists, who are psychologists studying “the evolutionary roots of human culture by examining semi-wild chimpanzees,” examined how the chimpanzees acquire their food preparation skills, also known as “extractive foraging,” by observing the various methods the three groups used to open hard-shelled fruit.
“The fruits we studied are also eaten by wild chimpanzees all across Africa and they can be opened without the use of any sticks or stones, unlike the nut-cracking techniques that are also found in wild chimpanzee populations,” said Dr. Davila-Ross. “Since the fruit preparations did not require any additional tools, we find ecological explanations for the differences unlikely. Furthermore, their social and ecological surroundings showed no notable differences.”
Even though all three groups attempted similar trial and error methods to open the fruit, all three came to rely on different methods in the end. What’s more, the scientists found the chimpanzees learned the successful extractive foraging techniques by observing other members of their group. These traits, claim the scientists, encapsulate the early hallmarks of culture.
“The clear differences in the natural way the three chimpanzee groups opened the fruits is most likely the result of social learning, which helps form certain behavior in chimpanzees in a similar way to early human cultures,” said Mr. Rawlings. “As humans we might learn the best way to crack a nut or how to stone a peach from watching someone else and it appears chimpanzees learn how to handle food in similar ways.”
Since the Chimfunshi rescue is home to mostly orphaned chimpanzees, they have not been taught how to act or behave “like a chimpanzee” by their mothers, siblings and relatives. This lack of prior social learning, claims Dr. Davila-Ross, gives even further insight into the formation of culture.
“Much of the previous research has focused on captive primate groups, especially with tool use or unnatural feeding behaviors,” said Dr. Davila-Ross. “Half of the chimpanzees in the groups were orphans from throughout Africa and were housed based on their arrival date. Our findings provide important insights to how primordial forms of culture may have emerged.”