Social organization and the evolution of cumulative technology in apes and hominins

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Culturally supported accumulation (or ratcheting) of technological complexity is widely seen as characterizing hominin technology relative to that of the extant great apes, and thus as representing a threshold in cultural evolution. To explain this divide, we modeled the process of cultural accumulation of technology, which we defined as adding new actions to existing ones to create new functional combinations, based on a model for great ape tool use. The model shows that intraspecific and interspecific variation in the presence of simple and cumulative technology among extant orangutans and chimpanzees is largely due to variation in sociability, and hence opportunities for social learning. The model also suggests that the adoption of extensive allomaternal care (cooperative breeding) in early Pleistocene Homo, which led to an increase in sociability and to teaching, and hence increased efficiency of social learning, was enough to facilitate technological ratcheting. Hence, socioecological changes, rather than advances in cognitive abilities, can account for the cumulative cultural changes seen until the origin of the Acheulean. The consequent increase in the reliance on technology could have served as the pacemaker for increased cognitive abilities. Our results also suggest that a more important watershed in cultural evolution was the rise of donated culture (technology or concepts), in which technology or concepts was transferred to naïve individuals, allowing them to skip many learning steps, and specialization arose, which allowed individuals to learn only a subset of the population's skills.

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Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)180-90
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Human Evolution
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2012


  • Animals, Learning, Biological Evolution, Humans, Social Behavior, Species Specificity, Models, Biological, Tool Use Behavior, Hominidae, Cultural Evolution, Technology