An international collaboration of primatologists has gleaned evidence from decades of observations of orangutans that the apes show behaviors that are culturally based.
The scientists findings push back the origins of culturally transmitted behavior to 14 million years ago, when orangutans first evolved from their more primitive primate ancestors. Previous evidence for cultural transmission in chimpanzees suggested an origin of cultural traits 7 million years ago.
The researchers also warn that illegal logging and other habitat destruction in the forests of Sumatra and Borneo could not only threaten further research into the earliest origins of culture, but continue the dangerous decline in orangutan populations.
According to first author Carel van Schaik of Duke University, the impetus to look for cultural transmission among orangutans arose from earlier findings that orangutans use tools. In particular, van Schaik and his colleagues had discovered that groups of orangutans in Sumatra use sticks to pry out fat-rich seeds from a fruit called neesia, thereby avoiding the stinging hairs that surround the seeds.
Significantly, such tool use was present only among some groups, even when the habitat appeared to be the same, the researchers found. For instance, they found that while orangutans on one side of a barrier river used tools on the fruit, those on the other did not. Nevertheless, said van Schaik, a professor of biological anthropology and anatomy, the popular perception of orangutans did not suggest that they would show cultural transmission.
"Culture requires more than just a mother-infant bond, but also extensive social contact, and orangutans are at the low end of the sociability spectrum," said van Schaik. To explore the possibility of culture in orangutans, The Leakey Foundation sponsored in February 2002 a gathering of orangutan researchers from throughout the world to correlate their data.
Besides van Schaik, co-authors included Marc Ancrenaz of the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, Gwendolyn Borgen of Duke, Birute Galdikas of Simon Fraser University and Orangutan Foundation International, Cheryl Knott of Harvard University, Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan conservation Programme, Akira Suzuki of Kyoto University, Sri Suci Utami of Universitas International in Jararta, Indonesia, and Michelle Merrill of Duke.
"It was an open-ended exercise, in which we looked at each others videos and other data from our own observation sites," said van Schaik. "We looked for behaviors that were different among the different groups.
"While we were by no means certain that we would come up with any evidence for cultural variability, we ultimately identified 24 behaviors that likely represent cultural variants. Frankly, we were all rather giddy at the end, when we realized what had come out of our data."
According to van Schaik, the researchers are acutely aware that such differences might be nothing more than the animals adaptation to varying habitats, without social transmission.
"However, we saw that habitat did not have a significant impact on similarity of these behaviors," said van Schaik. "And our confidence that we were seeing cultural transmission was increased by analyses showing that proximate sites showed more behavioral similarity than distant sites. This finding strongly suggested that we were observing a process of innovation and cultural diffusion. "Also, we found the biggest behavioral repertoires within sites that showed the most social contact, thus giving the animals the greatest opportunity to learn from one another," he said. According to van Schaik, the discovery of cultural transmission in orangutans has implications for understanding the process in humans.
"First of all, this finding emphasizes that human culture didnt just arise de novo, but reaches far back in evolutionary time," he said. "The findings in chimpanzees meant that culture originated at least seven million years ago, and the discovery in orangutans pushes its origins back to about 14 million years.
"All these findings suggest that the first ancestral man-apes must have had a pretty solid evolutionary cultural foundation on which to build," said van Schaik.
Van Schaik and his colleagues distinguish four kinds of culture -- labels, signals, skills and symbols -- of which the Great Apes have shown the first three. Human culture is distinguished by far more sophisticated development of all four, he said. However, observations of chimpanzees and orangutans have revealed hints of symbol use, and further study might reveal clearer evidence of symbols, said van Schaik.
Van Schaik warned that political unrest and destruction of orangutan habitat could prevent such studies. "Some people have asked us Havent you learned enough by studying these animals for some 30 years?" said van Schaik. "And it is obvious from these findings that we havent. Some of the areas included in this study have already been lost to illegal logging. And even if somehow you could restore the forest and the animals, just as with human cultures, once a culture is gone, its gone."
Dennis Meredith | EurekAlert!
MicroRNA helps cancer evade immune system
19.09.2017 | Salk Institute
Ruby: Jacobs University scientists are collaborating in the development of a new type of chocolate
18.09.2017 | Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...
MBM ScienceBridge GmbH successfully negotiated a license agreement between University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the biotech company Tissue Systems Holding GmbH about commercial use of a multi-well tissue plate for automated and reliable tissue engineering & drug testing.
MBM ScienceBridge GmbH successfully negotiated a license agreement between University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the biotech company Tissue Systems...
Pathogenic bacteria are becoming resistant to common antibiotics to an ever increasing degree. One of the most difficult germs is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a...
Scientists from the MPI for Chemical Energy Conversion report in the first issue of the new journal JOULE.
Cell Press has just released the first issue of Joule, a new journal dedicated to sustainable energy research. In this issue James Birrell, Olaf Rüdiger,...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
19.09.2017 | Event News
19.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
19.09.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering