Baboons identify each other by status and family

PHILADELPHIA We may take it for granted that humans can classify each other according to familial or social status, but how did those abilities evolve? In the Nov. 14 issue of the journal Science, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania report that, much like humans, baboons identify each other based on complex rules that determine relationships between families and status or "rank" within their particular family.

"Humans organize their knowledge of social relationships into a hierarchical structure, and they also make use of hierarchical structures when deducing relationships between words in language," said Robert Seyfarth, a professor in Penn's Department of Psychology of the School of Arts and Sciences and one of the study's authors. "The existence of such complex social classifications in baboons, a species without language, suggests that the social pressures imposed by life in complex groups may have been one factor leading to the evolution of sophisticated cognition and language in our pre-human ancestors."

For the last 12 years, Seyfarth, Dorothy Cheney, a professor in Penn's Department of Biology, and their colleagues have studied a troop of more than 80 baboons in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Their research explores the cognitive mechanisms that might be the basis of primate social relationships and how such relationships may have influenced the development of human social relationships, intelligence and language.

During the 12 years, the researchers have become familiar with the social organization of the baboon troop and documented the existence of stable, long-term familial hierarchies within the troop. Baboon groups contain a number of adult females arranged in a linear dominance rank order. Each female's offspring acquire ranks immediately below those of their mother, with the youngest offspring holding higher ranks than their older siblings. The result is a social structure based simultaneously on rank and matrili

Contact: Greg Lester
University of Pennsylvania

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