Do Non-Human Primates Have Culture?

Do Non-Human Primates Have Culture?

There are several attributes that distinguish humans from other primates in the society. For some time, the use of tools had been among the factors used to distinguish humans and primates. However, this can no longer be used as a distinguishing factor due to the evolving nature of other primates. To have a greater insight into the issue, there needs to be a clear definition of culture. Nonetheless, this has not been the case for a long time. There are varied definitions that seem to change every now and then. Some of these definitions have different facets hence making it difficult to analyze whether non-human primates poses some aspects of culture. The definition that is been widely used at the moment tries to outline culture as a range of learned behavior patterns. Culture entails distinguishing attitudes, actions, values and feelings in a given group of individuals (Fleagle, 2013). Some time back, human beings were the only primates that seemed to fit this definition, but there have been some shocking revelations that bring about a change of ideas. The definition has prompted to become less human centric and new disciplines that relate to wild primates have emerged.

These disciplines such as Primatology have come to challenge culture as being uniquely human.  Primates usually have competition aspects of survival in their living patterns which bring about close associations among the members involved. Survival skills are usually passed from generation to the other where the young ones tend to learn from the adult. The mode of learning from different primates varies from one group to another. A number of researchers share similar sentiments that ecology and genetics should not be used in developing distinction between behavioral aspects that could be regarded as culture. Tracing back to history, there is evidence that humans were once some sort of animals. This was long before they acquired some characteristics that now classify them as proper humans. Such instances are indication of how the society can be discriminative when it comes to assessing other primates’ capability of possessing culture. There is also sufficient evidence provided by the Bible in the book of Genesis whereby women and men were created by God and bestowed with the power to rule over other animals. This tries to explain why most human beings negate the idea that other species would show similar characteristics to theirs (Stefoff, 2008). The aspect of superiority acts as barrier to conquering with this notion.

Currently there are two famous examples in the world that have triggered this debate of whether other primates posses culture. One of them is the Japanese macaques’ population that was noticed washing potatoes along the river. This is an attribute that is only associated with man. He is the only primate that is conscious of the health aspects that come with the food that he consumes. This brings about the aspect of washing different types of food before consumption. The observation of Macaques following in these steps tends to raise some questions on whether these primates have some cultural patterns. The major question is that is this sufficient evidence that the animals have a culture?

Another recent example is the Chimpanzees of Tanzania that were seen using sticks as tools of extracting honey and terminates for consumption purposes (Binns, 2006). There have never been other animals that portrayed similar traits.  It was something unique that caught the attention of many individuals interested in this discussion. However, this does not necessarily lead to a conclusion that non-human primates also have some form of culture. The difficult part here is analyzing why some patterns tend to be recognized as cultural while others are not. It is fascinating why people talk of culture when they hear that there are chimpanzees using sticks, but fails to recognize the same aspects when a dog digs a hole for the purpose of hiding its food. The latter is usually associated with instinct, and people do not want to consider it as a cultural trait. Moreover, it is only human beings with the ability of storing food for future usage. If that is the case, wouldn’t this behavior by dogs be regarded as a culture? The complex nature of the word “culture” brings about all this confusion. The word was invented by humans and it attempts to refer to human’s action and behavior. This makes the way people view it to be somewhat anthropocentric. It tends to be the same reason as to why when some animals do some activities that are related to humans, individuals tend to be hypnotized. If we were to take into account every small detail that animals do, and resembles humans, then we might end up classifying almost all animals as having culture.

For such reasons, I do not think non-human primates poses any form of culture. Washing of potatoes and using sticks is not sufficient evidence. What makes it even more unreliable is the nature of data provided to support the information. The field data is not sufficient hence making such a statement seems to be misleading in a way. If an extensive research is conducted and such attributes observed in other regions, then there might be a case to argue about. In this case though, the data seems to be insufficient to warrant such big statements regarding animals and culture. Another thing that tends to raise eyebrows is the fact that all animals have the ability of learning new things. The learning process comes along with forgetting some aspects that were important in previous behavioral patterns. This explains why there are variations among generations. What was being done in 1700s is no longer relevant in the 21st century (Kummer, 2007). There is no evidence that when these chimpanzees will attain other traits similar to those of humans once they lose the ones they possess currently. In addition, there needs to be a variety of actions that prove such primates have culture. Basing it on a single activity that does not have sufficient data for survey would be ill informed. At the end, almost every animal on earth would start to be regarded as having culture due to some actions.

Another case that would be used to argue against the idea that non-human primates have culture is the way information is transformed from one generation to another.  Human beings use both teaching and imitation to pass information. Non-human primates on the other hand, rely solely on imitation, and do not apply any aspect of teaching. This brings the notion that young chimpanzees have to learn on their own on how to use sticks when extracting termites. Human beings also learn from observation, but there are a lot of things that they are taught before they can grasp. There are no other primates that have been identified as having this ability. That is a clear indication that some behaviors might become obsolete since there are no sufficient measures put in place to ensure their continuity (Stefoff, 2008).

As a form of culture, human beings are known to have the ability of shaping the environment in a way that makes it suitable for their adaptation. This is a similar case experienced with other primates. However, non-human primates use this environment without making any form of modifications. Apes sleep on very poor nests, monkeys tend to sleep on convenient branches among others.  They might tend to share food, but only humans have the ability of storing food (O’neil, 2012). This is clear indication that non-human primates do not have distinct traits that would be regarded as culture.

In conclusion, non-human primates do not have culture. The definition of the word culture makes it difficult to conduct this analysis. The few examples of animals exhibiting behavior that is similar to human beings do not constitute culture. Human beings might have coined the definition in a manner that favors them, but there is evidence to show that their cultural aspects are far beyond those of any other primate. There is also absence of extensive field data that can be used in proving these assertions of other primates having culture. Their ability of transferring the cultures that some people believe exist is also in doubt. One trait of culture is that it can be passed from one generation to the other without losing its meaning. It only becomes obsolete as other traits are being adopted.


Works Cited

Fleagle, John G.. Primate Adaptation and Evolution: 3rd Edn. Massachusetts: Academic Press,    2013. Print.

Binns, Corey . “Case Closed: Apes Got Culture.” N.p., 28 Feb. 2006. Web. 11   Nov. 2013. <>.

Kummer, Hans . “Culture and Primates.” Primate Neuroethology 4.6 (2007): 27. Print.

O’neil, Dennis. “Adaptations of Group Living.” Primate Behavior. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.             < a website by URL or         keyword…>.

Stefoff, Rebecca . “Behavior Regulation in Primates.” Primates Adaptation 8.3 (2008): 23. Print.


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