Study claims chimps lack culture

Chimps seem to learn from each other, producing a unique culture in each group. New research challenges this, saying behaviours is just invented each time.

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Humans learn behaviour, tools, and techniques from each other. This shared body of knowledge is culture and we all have it. Don’t let judgy snobs tell you otherwise. In fact, culture is fundamental to human survival. It means each generation doesn’t start from scratch. Instead, they can learn from (and build upon) the work of others. This is the secret to our success.

But it turns out we aren’t the only ones who do this. Different chimp groups also seem to have culture. A series of behaviours they share that aren’t the result of environment or genetics. Since this discovery people have argued about how similar this chimp culture is to our own. Can it even be labelled culture?

Nearly 20 years after chimps first got called cultural and the debate is still ongoing. In fact, recent discoveries suggest that chimps aren’t even sharing behaviours with each other. Instead, the similarities are (sort of) coincidence, and the whole idea of cultural chimps is a mistake.

Do they have a point?

Critiquing chimp culture

The key discovery is fairly profound. A chimp scooped bread out of the water with a stick all by itself! Dramatic right? In fact, a whole bunch of chimps were seen doing this. No wonder people think this discovery means the textbooks need a rewrite.

Think I’m being sarcastic? Only partially. The significance here is the chimps were independent. Wild chimps also scoop stuff out of the water with a stick. In these cases, the chimps will use a stick to scoop up algae off the surface of the water. Some say this behaviour is part of their culture.

A chimp figuring out how to scoop bread

But like I said, in this case, the chimps examined were independent. Most were born in a lab and never learnt how to water scoop. Yet when presented with bread in water they soon learnt how to scoop it out with sticks. Ultimately, chimps from two captive groups figured out how to water scoop. Since it can’t be ruled out that others in the group saw what the “discoverer” was doing, only two chimp inventors can be confirmed.

What’s all this got to do with culture? Well, the researchers who teased chimps with wet bread suggest this provides evidence that chimp culture is actually the result of ZLS. This stands for “zone of latent solutions” and is essentially the idea that every chimp could figure out every part of chimp culture, but for some reason doesn’t. However, when prompted by the environment or seeing another chimp, they delve into this repertoire and pull out a “new” behaviour.

The gist being that different chimp groups use different parts of their ZLS depending on their local environment and culture. This creates the false appearance of a shared culture.

Taking chimps down a peg

Of course, all this isn’t to say chimps don’t have culture. In fact, the researchers behind the wet bread suggest cultural mechanisms may be what causes a part of ZLS to become dominant in a group. The issue is that the inventiveness and learning required for this to happen has been exaggerated because this behaviour already exists “within them”. All they had to do was believe in themselves.

Disney plotlines aside, does this critique of cultural chimpanzees have any merit? I’m not convinced.

Chimps algae fishing in the wild

If chimps did have this innate repertoire they were drawing from, you should see chimps in the same circumstances doing the same thing. Whilst this did happen here, it doesn’t always. For instance, different groups use different tools to get honey out of logs. Even algae fishing, the behaviour examined here, can vary between groups. Chimps at two nearby sites in Guinea both use sticks to fish for algae. But they modify sticks into different tools to be used in different ways.

And this isn’t even talking about the double standard. Looking around at human culture there are countless examples of things being independently invented by naive individuals. Farming was independently discovered by multiple groups, as was the later finding that you can get milk from your farmed animals. Yet I’m not sure anyone would take this to mean that humans have some innate farming ability, or that farming doesn’t count as part of our culture.

In fact, there’s an entire field dedicated to recreating ancient technology from scratch. It would be absurd to suggest that each of their findings is evidence of some innate technical repertoire of humans. But when chimps are seen making independent discoveries of the same thing, it’s a strike against their culture.


Bandini, E. and Tennie, C., 2017. Spontaneous reoccurrence of “scooping”, a wild tool-use behaviour, in naïve chimpanzees. PeerJ5, p.e3814.

Boesch, C., Kalan, A.K., Agbor, A., Arandjelovic, M., Dieguez, P., Lapeyre, V. and Kühl, H.S., 2017. Chimpanzees routinely fish for algae with tools during the dry season in Bakoun, Guinea. American journal of primatology79(3), pp.1-7.

Whiten, A., Goodall, J., McGrew, W.C., Nishida, T., Reynolds, V., Sugiyama, Y., Tutin, C.E., Wrangham, R.W. and Boesch, C., 1999. Cultures in chimpanzees. Nature399(6737), pp.682-685.

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2 thoughts on “Study claims chimps lack culture”

  1. clayton says:

    I was thinking about that double standard throughout your article until you mentioned it, and I really think that is the crux of their assumptions about chimp’s culture and their ZLS. It seems like they didn’t take that into account at all, or assumed some type of human superiority the way 19th century scientists used to. So, I say, quite huffily, I do not accept their findings!

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Safe to say you aren’t the only one, with many primatologists taking issue with their conclusions. It will certainly be interesting watching this play itself out.

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