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Cultured Chimpanzee reveals clues to human evolution

01/10/2005

While people may never observe our extinct forebears to see how human behavior and culture developed, a new book helps us to observe and learn from our closest living relatives, the African great apes.

Miami professor W.C. McGrew argues for the relevance and importance of these observations in The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology, published in November by Cambridge University Press.

The Cultured Chimpanzee explores the astonishing variety in chimpanzee behavior across their range - from Senegal to Tanzania - that cannot be explained by individual learning, genetic or environmental influences. McGrew promotes the view that the chimpanzees’ rich diversity in social life and material culture reflect social learning of traditions, more closely resembling the cultural variety in humans than the simpler behavior of other animal species.

As one who has studied wild chimpanzees for more than 30 years, McGrew is able to comment on the current state of cultural primatology and its ability to reconstruct the cultural evolution of Homo sapiens from earlier forms. He invites a continued collaboration among anthropologists, archaeologists and zoologists to better understand human and primate cultural evolution.

McGrew especially urges preservation, beyond conservation, to ensure the survival of the chimpanzee. “We must protect and maintain whole ecosystems,” he writes, “full of predators, prey, and competitors, that reflect the range of the chimpanzee as a species. We must keep safe cultures as well as populations.” To that end, he is donating profits from sale of the book to help chimpanzees in Africa.

McGrew, professor of anthropology and zoology at Miami, wrote the book while he was a visiting research fellow at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge.

He is author of more than 100 publications on chimpanzee behavior, including Chimpanzee Material Culture (Cambridge, 1992); he edited Great Ape Societies, (Cambridge, 1996) with Miami anthropology professor Linda Marchant and Tokyo zoology professor Toshisada Nishida.

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