Transferring knowledge through a chain of generations is a behavior not exclusive to humans, according to new findings by researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University and the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. For the first time, researchers have shown chimpanzees exhibit generational learning behavior similar to that in humans. Unlike previous findings that indicated chimpanzees simply conform to the social norms of the group, this study shows behavior and traditions can be passed along a chain of individual chimpanzees. These findings, based upon behavioral data gathered at the Yerkes Field Station in Lawrenceville, Ga., will publish online in the August 28 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Using a research design that simulated transmission over multiple generations, researchers Victoria Horner, PhD, of the University of St. Andrews and the Yerkes Research Center, along with Yerkes researcher Frans B.M. de Waal, PhD, and St. Andrews researcher Andrew Whiten, PhD, were able to more closely examine how chimpanzees learn from each other and the potential longevity of their culture. In doing so, they confirmed that a particular behavior can be transmitted accurately along a chain of up to six chimpanzees, representing six simulated generations equaling approximately 90 years of culture in the wild. A comparative benchmark study with three-year-old human children, conducted by St. Andrews researcher Emma Flynn, PhD, revealed similar results, providing further evidence chimpanzees, like humans, are creatures of culture.
In the study, researchers began by introducing a foraging technique to two chimpanzees, one each from two separate social groups, to train them to open a special testing box one of two ways either by sliding or lifting the door to reveal fruit inside. Chimpanzees in a third social group, used as the control group, were allowed to explore the testing box but
Contact: Stephanie McNicoll
Emory University Health Sciences Center