Collective knowledge and the dynamics of culture in chimpanzees

Andrew Whiten, Rachel A. Harrison, Nicola McGuigan, Gillian L. Vale, Stuart K. Watson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
43 Downloads (Pure)


Social learning in non-human primates has been studied experimentally for over 120 years, yet until the present century this was limited to what one individual learns from a single other. Evidence of group-wide traditions in the wild then highlighted the collective context for social learning, and broader ‘diffusion experiments’ have since demonstrated transmission at the community level. In the present article, we describe and set in comparative perspective three strands of our recent research that further explore the collective dimensions of culture and cumulative culture in chimpanzees. First, exposing small communities of chimpanzees to contexts incorporating increasingly challenging, but more rewarding tool use opportunities revealed solutions arising through the combination of different individuals' discoveries, spreading to become shared innovations. The second series of experiments yielded evidence of conformist changes from habitual techniques to alternatives displayed by a unanimous majority of others but implicating a form of quorum decision-making. Third, we found that between-group differences in social tolerance were associated with differential success in developing more complex tool use to exploit an increasingly inaccessible resource. We discuss the implications of this array of findings in the wider context of related studies of humans, other primates and non-primate species. This article is part of a discussion meeting issue ‘The emergence of collective knowledge and cumulative culture in animals, humans and machines’.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20200321
Number of pages9
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1843
Early online date13 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2022


  • collective knowledge
  • innovation
  • social learning
  • chimpanzee
  • culture
  • cumulative culture


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