By studying orangutan populations, a team of researchers headed by anthropologist Michael Krützen from the University of Zurich has demonstrated that great apes also have the ability to learn socially and pass them down through a great many generations. The researchers provide the first evidence that culture in humans and great apes has the same evolutionary roots, thus answering the contentious question as to whether variation in behavioral patterns in orangutans are culturally driven, or caused by genetic factors and environmental influences.
Mure Wipfli, Anthropologisches Institut und Museum, Universität Zürich
In humans, behavioral innovations are usually passed down culturally from one generation to the next through social learning. For many, the existence of culture in humans is the key adaptation that sets us apart from animals. Whether culture is unique to humans or has deeper evolutionary roots, however, remains one of the unsolved questions in science.
About ten years ago, biologists who had been observing great apes in the wild reported a geographic variation of behavior patterns that could only have come about through the cultural transmission of innovations, much like in humans. The observation triggered an intense debate among scientists that is still ongoing. To this day, it is still disputed whether the geographical variation in behavior is culturally driven or the result of genetic factors and environmental influences.
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