Chimpanzees display some of the same cultural diversity as people, according to two of the world’s leading primate experts.
The pioneer of research on traditions in apes, Professor William McGrew of Miami University, Ohio, is spending the summer with Professor Andrew Whiten of the University of St Andrews, exploring cultural diversity across sites. The conclusion is that chimpanzees’ behaviour differs in the same ways that human cultural behaviour differs across the world. “St Andrews is now the focal point of international research on cultural primatology. Co-operation with the best field researchers on chimpanzees, from Europe, Japan and America, is revealing a rich diversity of cultural variation in our nearest living relations. Knowing that the chimpanzee is an endangered species is an even greater spur to pressing on with our studies,” said Professor McGrew.
The new research marks stage two of the Chimpanzee Cultures Project – a long term international study, co-ordinated by Professor Whiten, which compares the behaviour of chimpanzees from nine wild populations in Africa.
Professor McGrew’s visit has resulted in the completion of an article due to be published next year. Co-written with seven other scientists, from institutions such as Oxford, Harvard, Kyoto and Germany’s Max Planck Institute, it follows the progress of the project in comparing differences in chimpanzee culture from East to West Africa.
The paper follows up the group’s first report published in June 1999, which demonstrated conclusively that chimpanzees show complex cultural variation, and that certain customs are due to cultural habits as opposed to genetic make-up.
The group is beginning to see new patterns of chimpanzee behaviour, as well as certain ‘universals’ emerging with local variations. For example, experts have logged over 40 different types of tool use, demonstrating that chimpanzee technology varies according to resources and raw materials, as well as with techniques for exploitation.
Experts have found that the use of wood or stone tools to crack nuts occurs in several places in West Africa but not in East Africa, even though there are stones and nuts readily available there. Instead, they either don’t eat the nuts at all or try to crack them open with their hands, but never quite get to the kernel.
Even the way the apes deal with parasites differs by region – in East Africa, chimpanzees groom parasites off each other and onto leaves, after which they either inspect them or kill them by squashing them. This contrasts starkly with West African chimpanzees, who simply kill parasites by mashing them on their forearms.
The Chimpanzee Cultures Project is an international collaboration between field directors of long- term chimpanzee study sites across Africa – from Senegal to Tanzania – and co-authors include the renowned primatologist and conservationalist, Jane Goodall.
Professor McGrew is widely considered to be the world’s expert on the study of the cultural variability of chimpanzees. His 1992 book ‘Chimpanzee Material Cultures’ won the annual book prize of the American Anthropological Association, and earned him an international scientific prize, the Delwart Prize from the Belgian Royal Academy of Sciences.
He has had a long and distinguished career in the fields of Anthropology, Psychology and Zoology, and is one of four founder members of the Scottish Primate Research Group, set up in 1987 among the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Stirling.
Professor McGrew’s 6-week visit as a Senior Visiting Fellow to St Andrews is funded by the Russell Trust, a local charitable trust that supports the School of Psychology’s Fellowship programme. He is joined on this visit by his wife and research collaborator Professor Linda Marchant, also of Miami University.
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