CORDIS - EU research results

The evolutionary origins of human culture: a primatological perspective


Culture – the inheritance of behavioural phenotypes through social learning – is one of the most pervasive and influential characteristics of the human species. However, we lack knowledge about the origins of culture and to what extent its sub-components reflect species universals. Studying primates enables us to identify the evolutionary origins of human culture and the extent of its human uniqueness. Until now, it has largely been assumed that the social and cumulative components of human culture are derived phenomena that emerged after the phylogenetic split with the ape lineages. However, this claim may reflect a lack of adequate methodologies and research attention, leaving primate social culture underestimated. Now, combining novel techniques to investigate primate culture (deep learning) with innovative experiments in naturalistic settings, CULT_ORIGINS will overcome this issue by providing the first systematic study on social culture in primates. Rich datasets on macaques will be compared across an unprecedented number of groups to identify cultural variation in primate sociality and the existence of cooperative cultures. Great apes will be studied for their capacity to adopt cultural information flexibly and generate increasingly adaptive cultures – the pinnacles of human culture. Combining the strengths of experimental rigor and naturalistic observation in an unparalleled multi-group approach, CULT_ORIGINS will deliver step-change insights into the origins of human culture that go far beyond the State-of-the-Art. We will test the hypothesis that culture permeates the fabric of primates’ sociality, where it impacts the expression of cooperation, social learning and cumulative culture, like in humans. By synergizing approaches across biology, psychology, ethology and anthropology, CULT_ORIGINS will advance our understanding of the origins of culture, one of our most remarkable capacities, and challenge current perspectives about its human uniqueness.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 500 000,00
3584 CS Utrecht

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West-Nederland Utrecht Utrecht
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 500 000,00

Beneficiaries (1)