Culture in Non-Human Primates

The concept of culture has for the longest period been used in association with human behavior. In fact, culture has been used as one of the important factors in differentiating humans from other primates. Consequently, humans are defined by their way of doing things including traditions gained over a long period of time. For instance, the way in which humans eat or sleep is attributable to their culture developed from specific traditions. Several studies have however, pointed to the evidence of culture among non human primates based on their way of doing things. Although these primates do not have obvious cultural traditions as is the norm with humans, some behavioral practices have been identified as having variations between different communities. In fact, the transmission of these practices has been attributed to the concept of social learning in which subsequent generations preserve traditions gained by their predecessors. Primates too have culture and its transmission and acquisition is an area that is facing increased research concern (Huffman et al, 2013).

The existence of culture in non-human primates is qualified through its practice by multiple members of the community. In addition, the practice must be varied across different societies or groups as well as have a potential of existing in other groups or societies. The first official use of the concept of culture in non human primates was observed in 1952 when stone handling was witnessed among Japanese macaque. The species, otherwise known as the snow monkey is a terrestrial primate that is native to Japan. Research has shown that the snow monkeys use different tools and are able to communicate and interact with fellow monkeys through the shaking of hands (Tanaka, 1995). Although these animals do not sip fine wine as is the culture of humans, they obviously engage in cultural behavior that varies from one group to the other. The behavioral practices exhibited by the Japanese macaque provide strong evidence of cultured primate.

Stone handling is perhaps one of the most prominent behaviors in support of the existence of culture among the macaques. The behavior of stone handling has been transmitted over long periods from the older generations to the current generation of macaques. Even when the concept is practiced among the macaques, it has been observed in different fashions such as the clacking of stones together and the pounding of the same stones against hard surfaces. Other societies within the macaques have been observed to practice different versions of stone handling including the picking of stone as well as carrying, pushing and throwing stones away. The variability with which the stone handling practice is exhibited among different groups of macaques points to the existence of culture. Scientists have observed that the stone handling practice changes with subsequent generations (Huffman, 1996). Individual macaques have contributed different and unique patterns to the behavior of stone handling thus effecting changes within the practice in entirety. Other studies have also shown that the proximity of an infant to it’s a mother influences their development of the behavior. Consequently, the infant macaques develop their stone handling behaviors based on how they are exhibited in older generations.

The behavior of washing sweet potato and wheat is another factor that points to the existence of culture among the macaques. This development illustrates the spreading of a behavior through subsequent generations through transmission. Some groups of macaques have the tendency of washing sweet potato prior to their consumption and the trait has been passed on to subsequent populations.  Ultimately, certain groups within the macaque population have developed this behavior and continue to spread the same to other groups. Since male macaques migrate to other groups at puberty, they are able to transfer the behavior to other groups that had no prior behavior in sweet potato washing (Huffman et al, 2013). Scientists have also documented groups of macaques as dipping food in salty water before consuming it thus pointing to an acquired behavior through cultural interactions. Clearly, the behavior started from one macaque and was transmitted to other individuals through imitation and social learning. The variation in the behavior across different macaque groups in terms of sweet potato washing is evidence of cultural behavior.

The cultural behavior of macaques is also evidenced in how they have developed practices of washing wheat. It is interesting how the practice of washing wheat in water was developed and the transmission of the practice across different individuals. However, it is very similar to the washing of sweet potato in water by the same macaque populations. One macaque discovered a clever way of separating wheat grains from the sand granules. Instead of picking wheat grains one by one from the mixture, the macaque discovered that dipping the mixture in water was an effective separation method. Consequently, the sand granules would sink in the water while the whet grains reemerged from the water (Huffman, 1996). The behavior was passed on to the subsequent generations enabling a transmission of the practice among different individuals. The process of transmission was guided by the concepts of social learning, imitation and emulation with other members of the troop learning the behavior over time. In the end, some macaque troops have developed and perfected the behavioral pattern to include special aspects not originally envisioned in the behavior.

When one behavioral innovation is transferred from one individual to the other members of the group, a culture is born. The macaque species of monkeys has been observed to exhibit cultural aspects in response to changes in lifestyles as well as environmental changes. The troops living in Japan differ in different aspects of their lives including their methods of communication, interaction and eating habits (Huffman et al, 2013). While some of these behaviors are similar in other groups or troops, others are unique to certain troops and take longer to be transmitted to the adjacent troops. Regardless of the level of transmission, the adoption of initial and innovative behavior by other individuals through transmission constitutes a development of culture. The evidence of such disparities in behavior further cements claims that the macaques are cultured primates. Moreover, the acquisition of these behaviors across different individuals is similar to the channels exhibited in humans and other cultured animals. The examples of different behavioral practices observed in various studies point to a unique existence of cultural behaviors in the macaques.

The feeding habits of the macaques are also varied across different regions with different troops developing unique feeding habits. Depending on the location of the troop, some individuals have been observed to eat birds’ eggs while others do not.  The development of egg eating behavior stems from one macaque that led the transmission of the behavior across subsequent generations (Tanaka, 1995). Normally, the nature of the macaques encourages the learning of behavior from the female adults as they spend the most time with infants. Male macaques, however, migrate to other troops with some living in isolation. The huge exposure that females have with infant members of the troop encourages acquisition of behavior that is practiced by the female adults. The behavior of egg eating among the macaques is thus specific to certain troops and has developed over a long time through the processes of imitation and social learning. In addition, the development of this behavior has resulted in the acquisition of other cultural practices regarding the collection of bird eggs. In fact, the processes of birds’ eggs collection differ across different troops depending on the prevalent behavior within the group. The tendency to align cultural behavior with the prevailing practices is another pointer to the existence of culture among the macaques.

Social behavior is also different across different macaque troops in separate regions of Japan. For instance, while some troops encourage paternal care for infants, others are of the opposite view with the female taking the role exclusively. However, a majority of the troops do not practice paternal care for infants but the practice is subject to change as with the other behaviors. It is therefore not predictable whether future troops will encourage paternal care for infants as this is dependent on a number of different factors. For instance, the migration of males that practice paternal care into other troops may transmit the behavior (Tanaka, 1995). In particular, an increase in the rank of migrated macaques in the new troops may influence the acquisition of the behavior as other members emulate the practice. In addition, the males may do so in pursuit of mating partners to continue their genetic makeup in the future generations.

The main definitive attribute of macaques is also a learned behavior and is part of the wider culture of the primates. It is believed that the love for snow is a behavior that has been passed on across different generations and was learned by one primate. Perhaps the behavior of bathing in hot springs better explains the concept as it was documented as it happened. In 1963, a young female snow monkey was lured into a hot spring by the use of soybeans. The monkey began to like the warmth from the hot spring prompting it to wallow in the new environment. Soon enough, bathing in hot spring was a newly acquired behavior that was transmitted to the other young snow monkeys. Scientists observed that other monkeys began to join the female monkey in the practice of bathing in the hot spring raising speculation as to the cultural aspects of the monkeys (Huffman et al, 2013). Although the initial transmission was relayed to the mother and a few young monkeys, the behavior soon developed in other snow monkeys making its a darling among the population of snow monkeys with time. To date, snow monkeys have been observed to invade hot tubs in search of warmth forming part of their acquired behaviors.

The Japanese macaques are highly adaptable with an established social structure. The alpha males are in charge of troops that are mainly comprised of female adults and infants. Male adults have the tendency of migration to other troops upon puberty and this explains the low number of males. The behavior of snow monkeys encourages interaction with even the most aggressive monkeys opting for interactions and playful games (Huffman, 1996). It is no wonder that behavioral practices are transmitted across different individuals both within troops and across different groups of macaques. There is enough evidence to show that macaques are cultured primates with the ability to transmit behavioral practices through social learning and imitation.

There is no denying that macaques are cultured non human primates with the ability to transmit behavior just like humans. Indeed, this revelation crashes the assertions that humans are the only cultured primates. While it is not the only cultured non human primate, the macaque has shown tendencies of a very developed form of cultural acquisition. Individuals in troops of groups are able to transmit acquired behaviors in different social and cultural aspects. The practice of stone handling, sweet potato and wheat washing are just but a few examples of evidence in support of macaques’ culture. In addition, different troops of macaques practice unique social behaviors including paternal care for infant and aggressive social ranks. Others have been observed to eat bird eggs while others do not. All these examples support the assertion that macaques are cultured on human primates.



Huffman, M.A., Nakagawa, N., Go, Y., Imai, H., Tomonaga, M. 2013. Cultural Diversity of Behaviors in Japanese Macaques. In: Monkeys, Apes, and Humans: Primatology in Japan. SpringerBriefs in Biology, DOI 10.1007/978-4-431- 54153-0_1.

Huffman, M. A. (1996). Acquisition of innovative cultural behaviors in nonhuman primates: A case study of stone handling, a socially transmitted behavior in Japanese macaques. In C. M Heyes, & B. G Galef, Jr. (Eds.), Social learning in animals: The roots of culture (pp. 267–289). London: Academic Press

Tanaka, I. (1995). Matrilineal distribution of louse egg-handling techniques during grooming in free-ranging Japanese macaques. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 98, 197–201.


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