New evidence of 'human' culture among primates

Fresh evidence that suggests monkeys can learn skills from each other, in the same manner as humans, has been uncovered by a University of Cambridge researcher.

Dr Antonio Moura, a Brazilian researcher from the Department of Biological Anthropology, has discovered signs that Capuchin monkeys in Brazil bang stones as a signalling device to ward off potential predators.

While not conclusive, his research adds to a mounting body of evidence that suggests other species have something approaching human culture. A strong case has already been made for great apes having a capacity for social learning, but until now there has been no evidence of material culture among the "new world" primates of Central or South America, which include Capuchins.

Dr Moura carried out his research in the Serra da Capivara National Park, in the Piaui state of north-east Brazil, during which he observed bouts of stone-banging, primarily among a group of 10 monkeys. As he approached, the monkeys would first search for a suitable loose stone, then hit it on a rock surface several times.

The act was apparently an aggressive one, directed at Dr Moura as a potential predator, but as the group became used to his presence in the area the stone-banging decreased. Furthermore, in a large minority of cases, adults and juvenile monkeys were seen banging the stones together without paying him any attention at all - suggesting that the younger monkeys were learning the skill from their more experienced elders. Captive monkeys released into the area that joined the study group also appeared to be learning to bang stones from the others.

Dr Moura describes the act of stone-banging as "a remarkable and novel" behaviour which has yet to be observed in any other non-human primate species. But the real significance of his research is that it suggests an element of human-like culture within this family of Capuchins.

Biological anthropologists are divi

Contact: Tom Kirk
University of Cambridge

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