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J Hum Evol. 2003 Jan;44(1):11-23.

Individual variation in the rate of use of tree-hole tools among wild orang-utans: implications for hominin evolution.

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  • 1Department of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy, Duke University, 27708-0383, Durham, NC, USA.


Primate tool use varies among species, populations, and individuals. Individual variation is especially poorly understood. Orang-utans in the Sumatran swamp forest of Suaq Balimbing varied widely in rates of tool use to extract honey, ants or termites from tree holes and in the degree to which they specialized on this tree-hole tool use. We tested whether individual variation was best explained by effects of social dominance, habitat differences, or by opportunities for socially learning the skills during ontogeny. There was no evidence for the first two hypotheses. However, we found a strong relationship between tool use specialization and mean female party size, which was used as a proxy for the opportunities for socially mediated learning in a foraging context during their development. This use was justified because females are rather philopatric and their mean party size remained stable over time, thus reflecting long-term tendencies. The correlation was not an artifact of a direct effect of party size on tool use tendencies, and did not hold for males, the dispersing sex. Thus, variation in the number of opportunities for social learning explains tool use variation within populations, corroborating hypotheses for between-population variation. The emergence of human culture was accompanied by vastly improved mechanisms of social learning. In order for these improvements to be favored by natural selection, the cultural potential must have actually been expressed. Thus, a combination of strong sociability and a reliance on tool-using or other technical skills acquired through social learning must have characterized early hominins.

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