Chimpanzees have the social skills to benefit from cumulative culture

What is cumulative culture? The best ways to describe it is to refer to the way that chimpanzees from Bossou, Guinea, have learned to crack open a nut by placing it on a large stone and then hitting it with a smaller stone. Not all chimpanzee groups can do this. About 4 miles away, the chimpanzees of Seringbara, Guinea, do not have this nut cracking tradition. If you provide them with the same tools, they don’t know what to do.

Chimp cracking open nuts using 2 stones
Chimp cracking open nuts using 2 stones. Photo: Kathelijne Koops, UZH.

The difference proves that cracking a nut is quite a complicated task. It is a task that chimpanzees are unable to grasp and develop from first principles. The scientists decided that either a highly intelligent chimpanzee in the distant past worked out how to crack open a nut using two stones and passed this knowledge on to his offspring and then to future offspring.

Either that, or a chimpanzee from the past got lucky and found out how to do it and then that knowledge was handed down. It was refined and the knowledge was maintained in this way. I guess this is the foundation of cumulative culture and as demonstrated by chimpanzees who have the social skills needed for this key human trait.

In short, cracking open nuts with two rocks became part of the culture of chimpanzee group. The scientist decided that this is the first step in cumulative culture. From that step a more complex task can be developed and gradually the tasks become more advanced.

“The more complex the task the more advanced the social learning, so at some point you might get teaching and language and then, poof, space travel is next.”(Kathelinje Koops of the University of Zurich).

Watching these chimpanzees crack open nuts using two rocks has highlighted or provided an insight as to how the human race has engaged in cumulative culture to evolve to the state where humans are now able to go into space; travelling to Mars being the next step if Elon Musk has his way.

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