Culture in Non-human Primates: Definitions and Evidence

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Humle, Tatyana ; Newton-Fisher, Nicholas E. (2013)
  • Publisher: Berghahn Books
  • Subject: GN | QL

The attribution of culture to non-human animals has been controversial and continues to fuel much heated debate, much of which hinges on how culture is defined. We illustrate how definitions have become less human-centric as observations from wild primates have led to a new discipline – cultural primatology – and challenged the idea of culture as uniquely human. Although cultural primatology has it roots in field studies of wild primates, the weight of captive studies across a variety of species has resulted in a comparative view of culture which emphasises the mechanism of transmission. We argue that, while this has broadened the species and behaviours that have been considered ‘cultural’, it weakens the usefulness of comparative studies in understanding the evolutionary origins of human culture. We prefer a definition that centres on the concept of culture as an array of behaviour patterns across multiple domains that vary between groups or populations due to differing histories of social transmission. We argue for the necessity of field studies of wild primates in the comparative study of culture, providing examples of how such studies allow both the identification of cultures across non-human primate social groups and the mechanisms by which behaviours are transmitted both within and between groups. Such studies are essential for an ecologically valid understanding of culture, and to investigate how social dynamics, ecology and demographics shape culture and the diffusion and dissemination of socially learned behaviours.
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