Do Chimpanzees Really Have a Culture?

There lacks sufficient evidence to demonstrate that chimpanzees have a culture. According to Laland and Hoppitt (2003), culture is a system of linguistically determined phenomena learned via imitation and teaching, socially transferred among a group of people. Gruber et al. (2015) claim that only a few animals have a culture since it is hard for them to establish a way of doing things passed among generations. Chimpanzees are animals thought to have a culture as they have various complex behaviors, such as tool use, that place them second to humans. Nevertheless, substantial evidence lacks to justify that, indeed, chimpanzees have a culture. Thus, this paper aims to present and validate that chimpanzees have a culture.

First, it is paramount to understand the situations through which animal culture can be defined. Laland and Hoppitt (2003) claim that animal culture can be understood through a hard experimental culture where through reliable scientific evidence, scientists prove the way animals share typical group behavior patterns. This definition makes it possible to define and justify that some fish, birds, and whales have a culture. Another way used by scientists to prove the culture of animals is by using animal social learning knowledge, intuition, and observation of their natural behavior. As a result, many vertebrates have been said to have a culture following this definition.

Scientific evidence has demonstrated that chimpanzees have a culture. According to Laland and Hoppitt (2003), the evidence must show that an animal exhibits culture. At the core of defining culture is the aspect of transmitting it from one generation to the other, which humans and a few species significantly show. Boesch and Jacob (2020) assert that chimpanzees are among the species that have a culture, as demonstrated by their ability to transmit behavioral patterns from one generation to the other and their tool-using behaviors. Laland and Hoppitt (2003) argue that chimpanzees reveal various forms of social learning, such as imitating others, which is a common human trait. Consequentially, chimpanzees exhibit behaviors such as hand-clasp grooming, courtship, and tool usage that are socially learned.

Chimpanzees have exhibited various behaviors that show that they have a culture. One common cultural behavior used to justify chimpanzees’ cultural traits is table manners. Call and Tennie (2009) posit that human culture affects how one behaves from infancy to adulthood, which is the case for chimpanzees. According to the authors, chimpanzees display table manners similar to humans. For instance, chimpanzees fill wooden logs with honey where.

They extract honey from the shallow holes with their fingers but use tools to reach that which is in the deep holes. Comparing the feeding behaviors of these chimpanzees, Call and Tennie (2009) report that the two groups of chimpanzees used different eating behaviors. For instance, one group of chimpanzees combined fingers and tools such as leaves to extract liquids from crevices and holes, while the other used sticks. Therefore, although chimpanzee groups display different techniques of extracting honey, they exhibit table manners that are used to justify that they have a culture, just like a human.

Social learning theory perfectly illustrates that chimpanzees have a culture. According to this theory, one develops and learns social behaviors by observing and imitating others. Lalalnd and Hoppitt (2003) add that social learning is used to assess the relationship between the brain size and behavioral suppleness of non-human primates. Besides, these authors stress that culture is established through socially learned and transferred information. Laland and Hoppitt (2003) further claim that species with big brains show more social learning than their counterparts. Thus, it becomes easy for chimpanzees to develop and learn social behavior through imitation and observation since they have big brains that are twice their expected size.

Adding on the same, Call and Tennie (2009) express that chimpanzees do not design tools as per their mental capacity or ecological adaptation but use tools from previous generations via social learning. The conclusion was made after an experiment using groups A and B of chimpanzees on their feeding behaviors; group A used folded leaves while group B used sticks. The researchers later learned that group A members would continuously use leaves, while group B would constantly use sticks because their respective members would learn through observation and imitation. Thus, social learning stimulates the behavioral learning of chimpanzees through imitation and observation, which determines their culture.

Further research has demonstrated that chimpanzees have a culture by how they hunt. According to Boesch and Jacob (2020), chimpanzees exhibit diverse fishing techniques in each community. These authors found that each chimpanzee community has distinctive fishing techniques. For instance, the Wonga Wongue chimpanzees from Gabon lie down on their side to fetch termites, while the Korup chimpanzees from Cameroon lean on their elbows (Boesch & Jacob, 2020). The differences observed in termite fishing of different chimpanzees make it easy for the researchers to rule out the ecological differences in explaining the way chimpanzees learn their culture since they all live in similar habitats and have access to similar resources.

Chimpanzees learn to conform to what others are doing by socially learning them rather than reinventing them. For instance, Boesch and Jacob (2020) claim that the similarity in termite fishing amongst the different communities shows that chimpanzees learn to fish termites through imitations and observations rather than inventing different techniques. The learning demonstrated by the chimpanzees shows that they do not focus on the efficiency of their behavior but rather do what others in the group are doing. Boesch and Jacob (2020) compared human behavior of using chopsticks differently from chimpanzees using sticks in termite fishing. For example, La Belgique apes from Cameroon use a brush to fish termites, while Korup from the same region use mouth to tremble the inserted stick in the termite hill.

Despite the existing evidence proving that chimpanzees have a culture, other researchers refute this fact and argue that they do not have a culture. According to Call and Tennie (2009), focusing on the social learning theory in justifying that chimpanzees have a culture limits the definition of culture in animals. The authors claim that scientists should not solely focus on this theory. They should further investigate other aspects of culture, such as normativity, conformity, and accumulation of knowledge used to define human culture. Laland and Hoppitt (2003) also challenge the use of social learning to describe and validate chimpanzees’ culture. Relying on social learning rules out the inception stage of behavior since it must be invented and later transferred to others through social learning. Thus, relying on social learning alone in describing chimpanzees’ culture overlooks numerous aspects since animal imitation and observation of behaviors are key to human culture, unlike animal culture.

Other researchers compare chimpanzees’ culture to other vertebrates such as fish and birds. According to Laland and Hoppitt (2003), chimpanzees fail to demonstrate typical behavior in groups that can form a pattern showing the cultural feature. The fish species, for instance, exhibits social learning in their conduct by the way they find food, the type of food they eat, recognize and avoid predators, and the way they decide which fish they’ll mate with. On the other hand, birds have a culture of song that varies according to different groups and their preference in mating. Thus, these vertebrates exhibit their culture more distinctly and enhanced than chimpanzees, which rely heavily on social learning.

The essay has demonstrated that, indeed, chimpanzees have a culture despite the existence of conflicting ideas. The definition of animal culture is dependent on the existing scientific evidence that confirms that animals’ group behaviors are their culture. Researchers have shown that chimpanzees have a culture since they can learn and share their behavior from one generation to the other. Likewise, chimpanzees socially learn their culture through observation and imitation. Scientists have agreed that chimpanzees have a culture as they exhibit similar table manners that vary across different communities, similar to human eating culture across various communities.

Tool usage and termite fishing are renowned chimpanzee activities that show a culture. Through social learning, chimpanzees learn to use different tools not learned through reinvention. However, researchers have challenged the existing knowledge claiming that chimpanzees have a culture as they claim that using social learning theory outlooks other aspects of culture. Thus, in-depth research considering other aspects of culture should be conducted to ascertain that chimpanzees have a culture.


Boesch, C., & Jacob, S. (2020). Cultural diversity in chimpanzees. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Web.

Call, J., & Tennie, C. (2009). Animal culture: Chimpanzee table manners? Current Biology, 19(21), 981-983. Web.

Gruber, T., Zuberbühler, K., Clément, F., & van Schaik, C. (2015). Apes have culture but may not know that they do. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 91-104. Web.

Laland, K. N., & Hoppitt, W. (2003). Do animals have culture? Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 12(3), 150-159. Web.

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