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The cultured chimpanzee: nonsense or breakthrough?

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Culture is said to be one of the defining characteristics of humanity, but to what extent, if at all, are there other cultural creatures? To some critics, the idea of ape culture is untenable, as (e.g.) they lack language. To others, culture (i.e. social learning) is widespread, in many animals from songbirds to whales. Some of these issues are semantic or definitional, but productive, objective methods can be applied to ethological data. Cultured apes may present useful models for inferring the evolutionary origins of hominin culture. I present data (natural history, ethnography, ethnology) from studies of wild chimpanzees across Africa, emphasising not only cross-populational variation but also species-typical universals. Examples come from both material (e.g. lithic technology used in extractive foraging) and non-material culture (e.g. customary performance of arbitrary social grooming patterns). I conclude with recent findings on chimpanzee material culture in the past, i.e. primate archaeology.

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