Genetic and ‘cultural’ similarity in wild chimpanzees

Kevin E. Langergraber, Christophe Boesch, Eiji Inoue, Miho Inoue-Murayama, John C. Mitani, Toshisada Nishida, Anne Pusey, Vernon Reynolds, Grit Schubert, Richard W. Wrangham, Emily Wroblewski, Linda Vigilant


The question of whether animals possess ‘cultures’ or ‘traditions’ continues to generate widespread theoretical and empirical interest. Studies of wild chimpanzees have featured prominently in this discussion, as the dominant approach used to identify culture in wild animals was first applied to them. This procedure, the ‘method of exclusion,’ begins by documenting behavioural differences between groups and then infers the existence of culture by eliminating ecological explanations for their occurrence. The validity of this approach has been questioned because genetic differences between groups have not explicitly been ruled out as a factor contributing to between-group differences in behaviour. Here we investigate this issue directly by analysing genetic and behavioural data from nine groups of wild chimpanzees. We find that the overall levels of genetic and behavioural dissimilarity between groups are highly and statistically significantly correlated. Additional analyses show that only a very small number of behaviours vary between genetically similar groups, and that there is no obvious pattern as to which classes of behaviours (e.g. tool-use versus communicative) have a distribution that matches patterns of between-group genetic dissimilarity. These results indicate that genetic dissimilarity cannot be eliminated as playing a major role in generating group differences in chimpanzee behaviour.

  • Received May 27, 2010.
  • Accepted July 27, 2010.
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