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Conformity to cultural norms of tool use in chimpanzees


Rich circumstantial evidence suggests that the extensive behavioural diversity recorded in wild great apes reflects a complexity of cultural variation unmatched by species other than our own1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12. However, the capacity for cultural transmission assumed by this interpretation has remained difficult to test rigorously in the field, where the scope for controlled experimentation is limited13,14,15,16. Here we show that experimentally introduced technologies will spread within different ape communities. Unobserved by group mates, we first trained a high-ranking female from each of two groups of captive chimpanzees to adopt one of two different tool-use techniques for obtaining food from the same ‘Pan-pipe’ apparatus, then re-introduced each female to her respective group. All but two of 32 chimpanzees mastered the new technique under the influence of their local expert, whereas none did so in a third population lacking an expert. Most chimpanzees adopted the method seeded in their group, and these traditions continued to diverge over time. A subset of chimpanzees that discovered the alternative method nevertheless went on to match the predominant approach of their companions, showing a conformity bias that is regarded as a hallmark of human culture11.

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Figure 1: Two techniques for gaining food from the ‘Pan-pipes’ apparatus.
Figure 2: Adoption of the Poke and Lift methods in two groups.


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This project was conducted at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center's Field Station and supported by a project grant from the BBSRC to A.W., by the National Institutes of Health, the Living Links Center of Emory University and the University of St Andrews. A.W. was supported by a Leverhulme Fellowship. We are grateful to M. Dindo, K. Bonnie, J. Rybak and Yerkes Field Station Engineering for logistical support. We also thank Yerkes' animal care and veterinary staff for maintaining the health of the chimpanzees. We are grateful to A. Burnley for construction of the Pan-pipes and to G. Brown, E. Flynn, K. Laland and A. Mesoudi for comments on manuscripts. The Yerkes Center is fully accredited by the American Association for Accreditation for Laboratory Animal Care.

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Correspondence to Andrew Whiten.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Methods

Procedures, coding and statistics details, additional to those in the main article. (DOC 27 kb)

Supplementary Table S1

Individual characteristics and rearing history. (DOC 72 kb)

Supplementary Table S2

Latency to success. For each individual, lists cumulative time from gaining access to the task, to first successful tool use. (DOC 33 kb)

Supplementary Table S3

Total frequencies of Poke and Lift. For each individual, lists total Poke and Lift acts in T1 and T2. (DOC 52 kb)

Supplementary Table S4

For each individual, lists the frequencies of Poke and Lift relevant to classification and statistics in Table 1 in the article. (DOC 33 kb)

Supplementary Video S1

Pan-pipe Lift technique by human, side-view. (MPG 2257 kb)

Supplementary Video S2

Pan-pipe Poke technique by human, side-view. (MPG 3322 kb)

Supplementary Video S3

Pan-pipe Lift technique by human, frontal (chimpanzee-eye) view. (MPG 1745 kb)

Supplementary Video S4

Pan-pipe Poke technique by human, frontal (chimpanzee-eye) view. (MPG 2286 kb)

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Whiten, A., Horner, V. & de Waal, F. Conformity to cultural norms of tool use in chimpanzees. Nature 437, 737–740 (2005).

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