Chimpanzee ethnography reveals unexpected cultural diversity


Human ethnographic knowledge covers hundreds of societies, whereas chimpanzee ethnography encompasses at most 15 communities. Using termite fishing as a window into the richness of chimpanzee cultural diversity, we address a potential sampling bias with 39 additional communities across Africa. Previously, termite fishing was known from eight locations with two distinguishable techniques observed in only two communities. Here, we add nine termite-fishing communities not studied before, revealing 38 different technical elements, as well as community-specific combinations of three to seven elements. Thirty of those were not ecologically constrained, permitting the investigation of chimpanzee termite-fishing culture. The number and combination of elements shared among individuals were more similar within communities than between them, thus supporting community-majority conformity via social imitation. The variation in community-specific combinations of elements parallels cultural diversity in human greeting norms or chopstick etiquette. We suggest that termite fishing in wild chimpanzees shows some elements of cumulative cultural diversity.

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Fig. 1: Cultural diversity when fishing termites from aerial nests in six different chimpanzee communities.
Fig. 2: Cultural diversity when fishing termites from underground nests in six different chimpanzee communities.
Fig. 3: Occurrence of technical elements in ten different chimpanzee communities.
Fig. 4: Similarity (Sørensen’s similarity index) between combinations of putative social elements only.

Data availability

The data for this study are included in Supplementary Data 16.

Code availability

The custom codes used for all statistical analyses are included in Supplementary Data 7 and 8.

Change history

  • 23 June 2020

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.


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We thank the Max Planck Society Innovation Fund and the Heinz L. Krekeler Foundation for financial support. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. For facilitating fieldwork, we thank M. Ter Heegde, L. Tédonzong, N. Wangue Njomen, J. M. Linder, M. Ketchen Eyong, E. Terrade, A. Nzeheke and H. Eshuis, and the volunteers, for help with obtaining Dindefelo videos. We thank G. Bocksberger, V. Estienne, L. Samuni, L. Benoit and A. Preis for help with the analysis, I. Ordaz-Németh and J. Riedel for their assistance with interobserver reliability tests, A. Bell for advice on calculating cultural FST and the following wildlife and government authorities for permissions to conduct and host research sites in their countries: Ministère de la Recherche Scientifique et de l’Innovation and Ministère des Forêts et de la Faune, Cameroon; Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Société Equatoriale d’Exploitation Forestière, Gabon; Ministère des Eaux et Forêts and Ministre de l’Environnement et de l’Assainissement et du Développement Durable, Mali; Ministère de l’Economie Forestière, Ministère de le Recherche Scientifique et Technologique and Agence Congolaise de la Faune et des Aires protégées, Republic of Congo; Direction des Eaux, Forêts et Chasses, Senegal; Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology and Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, Tanzania.

Author information




C.B., M.A. and H.S.K., designed the study and oversaw data collection. C.B., M.A. and P.D. compiled data for this study. C.B., R.M., S.P. and A.K.K. analysed the data. C.B., R.M. and A.K.K. prepared figures. C.B., A.K.K., M.A. and H.S.K. wrote the manuscript with input from all coauthors. E.A.A., A.B., C.C., V.E.E., M.E.-N., J.M.F., D.F., R.A.H.A., V.H., P.K., M.K., M.L., G.M., D.M., M.M., E.N., S.N., L.J.O., R.O., L.P., A.P., C.S., L.S., F. S., N.T., E.G.W. and J.W. collected data in the field.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christophe Boesch.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Editor recognition statement Primary Handling Editor: Charlotte Payne.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–5.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

All aerial termite fishing data.

Supplementary Data 2

All underground termite fishing data.

Supplementary Data 3

Aerial data in format for analyses.

Supplementary Data 4

Underground data in format for analyses.

Supplementary Data 5

Social or ecological technical element.

Supplementary Data 6

Data translation file for analyses.

Supplementary Data 7

Code needed to run all statistical analyses.

Supplementary Data 8

Custom written functions for all analyses and plotting.

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Boesch, C., Kalan, A.K., Mundry, R. et al. Chimpanzee ethnography reveals unexpected cultural diversity. Nat Hum Behav (2020).

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