Humans today display wide-ranging cultures. We have specialized ways of doing just about everything, from keeping ourselves warm (by producing fire, clothing, and houses) to feeding ourselves (by hunting, farming, cooking, and, eventually, shopping). All of these attributes are not genetic – they are learned behavior that have proved to be advantageous. They must be painstakingly re-taught to new members of the population if the behaviors are to be kept. This is a revolutionary development that allows useful and useless behavior to be evaluated much more quickly than genetic factors can be added or discarded from the gene pool.
But we are not the only animal that does this. Some apes, especially chimpanzees, also have the ability to learn and to pass on what has been learned. How much of this ability do they have? How similar are their capacities for learning to ours? Chimpanzees have a good ability to learn and retain knowledge, and they pass on useful tactics, just like humans do.
Chimpanzees do many things that are not instinctual, and rather must be learned from other members of the group. They vary from group to group, showing that the adaptations are not programmed in, but are things that must be acquired by individual members. These acts include “hammering nuts . . . fishing for termites . . . removing bone marrow . . . fanning flies . . . throwing . . . squashing parasites with fingers . . . [and] knocking knuckles” (Whiten and Boesch: 48-9).
Chimpanzees display these behaviors because there are benefits for doing so. Hammering difficult nuts is beneficial because then the chimpanzee has access to that extra protein that a chimpanzee unable to hammer nuts would not have access to. Fishing for termites provides more protein, and also involves the creation and usage of a tool, which is relevant a little later. Knocking knuckles is not a trait that greatly increases the likelihood of a male chimpanzee to survive, but it does make it more likely that his genes will be carried on to the next generation. Therefore, all of these traits combine to make a culture for chimpanzees.
However, when we look for a start of culture for hominids, we need not look any further than what Homo habilis was doing. H. habilis lived from 2.3 to 1.6 million years ago, and it appears that it was the first hominid to create stone tools. Called Olduwan tool technology after the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where the technology was originally found, the tools consist of stone cores that have been hit against anvils in order to chip off flakes. This chipping of flakes off the core makes a round stone more pointed and reveals a sharp edge that can be used for any one of many purposes.
Not only was there tool creation and use, but there was also the development of tool caches, where tools were stored in groups. There is also the first evidence of some sort of campsite, where animal bones and tools are found together. This gathering of animal-based food is a first, because when chimpanzees and baboons hunt, they tend to eat their kill immediately after the prey’s death. They do not take it home to feed others. It is this gathering and sharing of food that archaeologists see as part of the development of culture.
Another big difference between chimpanzee and other non-hominid primate cultures is that H. habilis and those who come after it were probably able to produce some sort of verbal language that was understandable and articulated more than just vague moods and information. While probably not able to speak with today’s humans’ abilities for pronunciation, the evidence suggests that their brains were well-developed for the understanding of language, and that they probably were able to communicate in a meaningful fashion. As Kenneth L. Feder and Michael Alan Park state: “endocasts of early Homo skulls show impressions of certain features of the brain that have, in modern humans, been associated with language production and comprehension” (254). Even though we are not certain that the change in the brain is directly responsible for language use, it seems more likely that some sort of creative speech would come from a hominid at about this time.
Why would language have developed around this time? The hominids were starting to live in groups and were working together to create tools and gather food. Some sort of communication must have been involved with the planning of hunting or scavenging parties, the planning of what type of stone tool was going to be made, and to make others aware of what was going on with members of the group who were out of eyeshot (for example, a group who is out foraging and has spread out on the plain).
I think the assertion that this is when culture really begins is correct. While chimpanzees and other primates do learn some things to help their lives go along a bit easier, the accomplishments of Homo habilis really show the first time an animal has become dependent on their cultural developments.
Chimpanzees could probably survive without fishing for termites. In fact, of the seven groups of chimpanzees studied in Andrew Whiten and Christophe Beosch’s paper, only two fish for termites.
Hominids, on the other hand, have shown an increasing reliance upon their cultural constructs. The tools developed by H. habilis are very primitive, but hominids as a whole have been innovative. The use of fire, language, and many varied tools have become common traits of human cultures. This is much more elaborate than what other, non-hominid primates do, and the roots of this increasing reliance on the ingenuity of the mind started with the H. habilis, the first hominid known to produce tools.
Another, very interesting, development in the argument for the start of culture to be with Homo habilis, rather than with chimpanzees or other primates, is that Homo habilis is the first primate to show evidence of organization. They have “campsites;” areas where animal bones and stone tools are concentrated for communal use. There is evidence that Homo habilis protected these sites by erecting barriers of large rock. The barriers appear to have been used as a shield to prevent wind-blown sand from blowing against individuals inside the site.
This central organization makes it seem as if Homo habilis had a focus on the group benefits of foodstuffs brought in. The centralized location of food and tools probably made it a safer location for Homo habilis individuals than being off on their own all the time.
Mutual care is also an important consideration. Primates such as baboons and chimpanzees may hunt, but they do not bring meat back to others, meaning that often females and youngsters are left out on large amounts of valuable protein. Here, it seems to be the case that some members of the group went out and brought back the meat that they obtained. They then butchered it and ate it with the group. This allows for better childhood nutrition and development, and also provides expectant mothers with essential nutrients. Culture, for the first hominids to really start using it, had provided Homo habilis with a way of bettering the diets of members who would typically be slighted.
Chimpanzees and other apes do display some behaviors we may consider to be similar to our own, such as the creation of termite fishing poles and the strategies involved in hunting of smaller mammals, like colobus monkeys. The problem is that non-hominid primates do not share their spoils. The strategies favor the individual, but other members of the group are not helped.
Other primates also do not do a central collection of tools and food. They do not build rock bluffs to protect their land. Most primates wander the forests and, although they may stick together in a close-knit group, they do not have a centralized, organized location that they can go to. Homo habilis was able to become organized enough to have this base, or site, to launch out from each day. Organization and the support of the hunters and scavengers in the group by those who can work for food close to home works well, as is evidenced by many hunter-gatherer societies found in the world today. If a hunt or scavenge goes poorly, then there is still enough food to go around because the plant eaters have gone out and gotten food. And if there is a good hunt, then everyone benefits from the increased nutritional content of meat. It is a good strategy that non-hominid primates have not been able to develop.
Culture is a word that everyone uses, yet seems difficult to define. It is what makes humans human, and it gives us another channel through which we can adapt and change. The development of stone tools, central organization, and, possibly, language and communication, have all combined in Homo habilis’ favor to be considered the species where culture began. Other primates that came before have to be considered, but the fact that all previous hominids and apes did not share and were not centrally-organized societies makes it more difficult to consider any primate except Homo habilis. This hominid started off the genus of Homo, and it did an amazing job of obtaining the most useful tool for adaptation and evolution for humans: culture. It allows faster adaptation and easier living for humans today. The ability to have – and change – traits that are not directly tied to genes gave the first genus Homo hominids an edge for survival, just as it gives today’s humans ingenuity and flexibility, while most apes are now endangered due to our malleable behaviors because they lack the ability to change as quickly.
Feder, Kenneth L. and Michael Alan Park. Human Antiquity. Mountain View, CA: 2001 by Mayfield Publishing Company.
Whiten, Andrew and Christophe Boesch. “The Cultures of Chimpanzees.” Scientific American: January 2001. Pp.46-52.