Nonhuman primate ethnography and cultural transmission processes on the primatology/anthropology frontier
Vincent Leblan (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement)
Paper short abstract:
Animal studies describe animals as cultural beings, yet overlook life science-theories that reduce cultural transmission-processes to information transfer. An alternative non-reductionist anthropological approach to animal "cultural" behaviour grounded in environmental history is proposed.
Paper long abstract:
With the advent of animal studies in anthropology (multispecies ethnography, anthrozoology, etc.), animals have become subjects whose behaviours, movements and habits are described as socially transmitted. Far from being only "good to think", living and behaving animals are now considered as disrupting our social, cognitive and ontological categories. In particular, the granting of cultural skills to animals and specifically to nonhuman primates (cultural primatology) appears to many ethnologists to be a logical corollary of the anthropology of nature. However, ethnological research focusing on animals has by and large ignored underlying theories of cultural transmission and primatology's assumptions about exactly what is transmitted. Research programs on the "biological foundations of culture" based on the study of animal behaviour usually consist in a unidirectional move of the culture concept from the social towards the life sciences. Cultural transmission processes are thus reduced to essentialist evolutionary explanations of "cultural information" transfer, which in turn are seen as laying the founding principles of a "science of culture" encompassing the human. Basing myself on a case study of chimpanzee use of oil-palm trees for building night nests in Guinea, an alternative non-reductionist anthropological approach is proposed in which the cognitive dimension of oil-palm nesting is embedded in the local ecology and human history of oil palm groves, rather than locked inside the animals' minds.
Cognitive anthropology and cultural transmission; legacies and futures