In the 1960s it was widely believed that the difference between humans and the other great apes was that humans used tools. However, this was rebuked when Dr. Jane Goodall found the chimpanzees of Gombe, Tanzania making and using tools to fish for termites.

It was then suggested that only humans possess “culture” defined as ways and means of doing things that follow a set pattern (or culture) for no reason other than that is how the behavior was learned by offspring from their parents or peers. Now, as with the tool use, this argument has also been rebuffed, as first chimpanzees and in the late 1990s now orangutans have also been shown to possess unique, complex and diversified cultures throughout their distribution ranges.

Culture can be defined as the presence of geographically distinct behavioral variants that are maintained and transmitted through social learning, or more simply as socially transmitted behaviors that vary from region to region.

Culture explains why different populations of a species do things in different ways, even though the need is the same. As an example, human populations build and use different designs, or ‘styles’, of boats and ships, not because the sea, lakes or rivers are so different from place to place - more simply as a result of the fact that that is how they learned to build boats from their parents and teachers. Likewise, the styles used to make jungle machetes vary markedly between different human groups, not because trees and branches are different, but because of local tradition or culture.

Every evening an orangutan builds a new nest in the treetops to sleep in. Orangutan nests can be built in several different positions in a tree and using a variety of different constriction methods. Everyone specializes in one manner of building. If it looks like it’s going to rain that night most, but not all, will also add a leafy roof to the nest to help keep the rain out. Just like with us, it all boils down to culture, and each individual, what we will see in practice!

Use of Tools

In addition to different methods of nest building, orangutan populations differ in other ways, according to their unique local cultures. Like chimpanzees, orangutans are also very capable tool users. In some areas they have been seen using leaves as napkins to wipe their faces, as swatters to ward off bees and as gloves to reach fruits high in the branches of very thorny trees.

In the swamp forests of Sumatra, they regularly make tools out of twigs and use them to get honey from insect nests, or to extract seeds from some particularly difficult and problematic forest fruits (e.g. neesia fruits). Such patterns of behavior among orangutans are often specific to a particular region, in which they are transmitted from adults to the next generation by what is called ‘social learning’, i.e. the process by which infants learn new behaviors from their mothers or peers. This is how orangutan cultures come to vary between one forest landscape and another, and how they persist.

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