You know what it's like: you go round your neighbour's for dinner and can't help noticing that they do things differently there than at your house. The way they cut their food, tuck in their napkins or use their forks, let alone the manner in which they navigate a chicken leg. Such cultural differences in humans are a vital part of what sets close neighbouring communities apart and were long thought to be a feature unique to humans. New research shows, however, that we are not the only species with an ability for fine-scale cultural differentiation. A recent study in Current Biology suggests that chimpanzees have culture, too: and it all comes down to the way in which they crack open their nuts.
Observing three adjacent groups of chimpanzees in the Taï National Park in Cote d'Ivoire over three consecutive nut-cracking seasons, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology were intrigued to discover that each community seems to possess unique table manners. The animals are partial to the tasty Coula nut, which they smash open with DIY "nut-crackers" made from wood or stone. Interestingly, each neighbourhood appears to have its own signature nut-cracking style. While two of the chimp groups preferred wooden "hammers" to prise open their supper, the third showed a preference for stone tools. And within the communities with the penchant for hammers fashioned from wood, each favoured a different size. Since the animals are not genetically differentiated and live in the same stretch of the national park, the researchers believe that these behavioural distinctions cannot be explained by genetic or ecological differences, but should in fact be regarded as cultural preferences. The scientists hope that their findings will shed light onto the origins of human culture. But never mind Mozart or Shakespeare - it's our primate cousins who really get cracking when it comes to culture.
Lydia V. Luncz, Roger Mundry, Christophe Boesch.
Evidence for Cultural Differences between Neighboring Chimpanzee Communities.
Current Biology, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.03.031