Whether it’s enjoying the latest composition of a Chinese street performer or revelling in the entrancing rhythms of a Middle Eastern dancer, it is easy to believe that we humans, as the dominant species on the planet, are the only ones to enjoy “culture.” An exquisitely difficult word to define, culture requires a level of conscious thought that transcends an animal’s basic instincts of survival and, importantly, is passed down from generation to generation, often with notable geographical variations.
This geographical variation is known as cultural plasticity and allows anthropologists to explain how different human ethnicities and races, despite having so much genetic commonality, have their own diverse idiosyncrasies.
There has been evidence, albeit weak, to suggest that members of the animal kingdom are capable of such feats of intellect. This is a point of contention, as some believe that this ability is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
However, recent work from Swiss biologists challenges this long-held bastion of human ignorance – arrogance one might argue. By meticulously studying over 100,000 hours of footage of 150 wild orangutans they arrive at a startling conclusion. Groups of orangutans living in separate areas of the rainforest have significant differences in behavioural patterns, social structures and interactions, giving rise to the idea that orangutans display a collection of behaviours and mannerisms that could be interpreted as primitive culture.
The study further suggests that the primordial culture seen in these orangutans could have the same evolutionary pathway as our own human behaviour, giving rise to the idea that these behaviours could be genetically predetermined in the great ape family. It is comforting to know then, that despite all of humanity’s triumphs, we still share a bond with these kindred spirits in the Bornean jungle.
Original Paper: Culture and Geographic Variation in Orangutan Behaviour, Current Biology, Vol 21
Photo by Paul Dickson
Posted on Thursday, 12th January, 2012