Understanding the cumulative process of cultural evolution across species, has been in the focus of recent research. This interest is motivated by the search for the evolutionary origins of the human capacity for culture that is also apparent in many other studied species such as wolves, dolphins, guppies and apes (Tomasello et al., 1993). Research in cross cultural patterns of social learning brings us closer to understanding the underlying aspects of cognition that varies across species and thus is responsible for the cultural differentiation among different species (Byrne et al., 2004).
The underlying process of cultural differentiation is named cultural transmission (or enculturation) that is present when animals acquire traits and skills that they would not normally learn from individuals of their own species who raise them (van Schaik & Burkart, 2011). This ability to transmit information onto successive generations depends on innovation, creating novel responses to the environment and the ability to imitate other’s behavior (Lehmann et al., 2010).
Although the definition of culture is widely debated among disciplines, Whiten et al. (1999) suggests that it is defined in contrast with the transmission of behavior through genes. He proposes that when cultural traditions are passed on to generations by some kind of social learning, culture emerges. Therefore, the capacity to imitate others and solve novel problems allows animals to create culture that is “a population-level characteristic” (Whiten et al., 1999, pp.2). Well-known examples of cultural transmission are the sweet potato washing Japanese macaques and different dialects of bird songs (Byrne et al., 2004).
The most significant and extensive cultural variation has been observed among chimpanzees that are the closest relatives of the human species. Whiten et al (1999) summarized 151 years of research and found that chimpanzees exhibit highly distinctive habitual and customary behaviors that can be absent in some communities but are not explained by ecological circumstances. They identified 65 categories of behavior that vary across chimpanzee communities, such as different methods of tool-use and food-processing skills.
Although the observational data is quite extensive, the underlying processes that drive the acquisition of new behaviors are mostly unknown. Hrubesch et al (2008) studied innovation and transmission in two groups of captive chimpanzees. The study showed that individuals are reluctant to change to a more efficient method of acquiring food if they have already acquired proficiency in a less effective one. Also, those who were proficient in the more effective foraging method did not switch to the less effective one when they were prevented from using the more efficient one.
Therefore, Hrubesch and colleagues (2008) concluded that the mastery of a particular method inhibits the adoption of an alternative solution, even if it is more efficient. They translated these...