Chimpanzees – Is Complex Behaviour Copied Or Instinctive?

Posted on February 15th 2022

Recent research carried out by a team from the University of Zurich has looked in to whether chimpanzees have the same instinctive skills or whether different groups have different skills.

Test of skill

A simple experiment was designed and carried out using different groups of chimpanzees. The chimps were given a big stone, a small stone and a nut. The researchers wanted to see if the chimps would naturally want to and know how to crack the nut.

The researchers selected two groups living near one another in Guinea, West Africa. Once group, living near Bossou, showed that they knew how to use the small stone as a hammer, and the big stone as a base on which to place the nut. They then smashed the nut with the small stone and got to the tasty kernel inside.

Another group, living just four miles away in Seringbara were given the same items, but had no idea what to do with them and where not any the wiser even when shown the contents of the nut.

Copied behaviour

The surprising different behaviours between the two groups shows that it is not an instinctive behaviour for chimpanzees to use tools. Instead it is learned behaviour, copied from other members of the group and passed down from elders to youngsters. This is the same with humans, as we learn all skills from watching each other.

The research team spent a year studying each group of chimpanzees. Those in Siringbara never managed to pick up the nut cracking skill. The team concluded that the Bossou chimps might have discovered the skill by accident quite recently, or it could have been passed down from generation to generation, over many years. If passed down generations then the skill may have been refined over the years.

Similarity to humans

The passing of skills is exactly how humans develop abilities and habits that define one culture from another. This appears to be true of chimpanzees too. Chimps do not instinctively know complex use of tools on their own, they are much like humans and need to learn from one another.


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