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Tool use is widespread in the animal kingdom, but habitual tool use is found only in a few bird and mammal species. Among the primates, frequent and diverse tool use by the whole population is observed only in chimpanzees, orang-utans, bearded capuchin monkeys and, to a lesser extent, long-tailed macaques. Given our close genetic links to our primate cousins, their tool use may provide insights into how humans developed their extraordinary material culture and technology.

The presence of culture in wild primates has previously been inferred by showing that simple ecological and genetic differences cannot account for all behavioural variation (e.g. tool use) across populations. This 'method of exclusion' is especially problematic when applied to the technological (material) aspects of culture because it ignores the potential influence of the local environment on culture, which may in fact be critical for understanding the occurrence and distribution of material culture.

Researchers Kathelijne Koops from the University of Cambridge (UK), Elisabetta Visalberghi from the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies (Italy) and Carel van Schaik from the University of Zurich (Switzerland) published a study today in the journal Biology Letters, which shows that the environment has a major influence on a cultural trait: primate tool use. They found that environmental opportunity drives the innovation and transmission of cultural variants, whereas necessity has no such effect.

"In this study, published in Biology Letters, we show how ecology affects material culture in three tool-using nonhuman primates: chimpanzees, orang-utans and capuchins", explains lead author Kathelijne Koops. "We reviewed all the current evidence for the role of ecology in shaping primate material culture and the conclusion is that ecological opportunity, not necessity, is the main driver of the presence of feeding tool use." Koops adds, "By considering how not just social organization and cognitive capacities, but also the environment influences tool use, we may begin to disentangle the different determinants of material culture in nonhuman primates, as well as humans".

"Both ecological constraints and opportunities should be kept in mind and properly evaluated. This study indicates that the common assumption that tool use occurs to overcome food scarcity can be misleading" Visalberghi said. Van Schaik added, "The results of this study suggest that the published reports on primate cultures, which used the highly conservative method of exclusion, may well underestimate the cultural repertoires of primates in the wild, perhaps by a wide margin."


For an interview to Kat Koops click here


For more details see also the articles:

Researchers Challenge Accepted Theory on Tool Use Among Primates

Opportunity, and not necessity, is the mother of invention

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