In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Animal Cultures

  • Introduction

Anthropology Animal Cultures
Crickette Sanz, Andrew Whiten
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0290


Culture has been defined and studied in varied ways by anthropologists, and until recently was considered a uniquely human characteristic or capacity. The traditional culture concept within anthropology may encompass knowledge, belief, art, symbols, customs, rules, and any other behaviors that are acquired as a member of social group. Extending such concepts to potentially encompass nonhuman species, and thence the evolution of culture more broadly, culture has been defined as all that is learned from others and repeatedly transmitted via social learning, within and possibly across generations. While early theoretical works were focused singularly on humans, there has been a proliferation of research in the past few decades on cultures and social learning in nonhuman animals (henceforth “animals”). While it is challenging to determine whether the cultural traits of animals, so defined, are significantly analogous to human cultures, the tenets of traditional evolutionary biology prompt us to take a comparative approach when examining the cognitive mechanisms and transmission processes underlying culture, facilitating the elucidation of its phylogenetic origins. There is increasing recognition of cultural transmission as a “second inheritance system” that complements genetic evolution, and the possibility that cultural processes will interact with genetically based phenomena to result in “gene-culture coevolution,” a well-established phenomenon in human culture, as in the link between dairy practices and the capacity for milk digestion. For example, it has been suggested that the directional selection in brain expansion and reliance on cultural behavior coevolved with extended life history and complex sociality in non-human primates, then further enhanced in humans.

Overviews and Themed Journal Issues

The study of animal culture has flourished over the past few decades, with research expanding beyond surveys of cultural diversity to focus on the cognitive mechanisms and evolutionary processes underlying these behaviors. An increasing number of studies have been published in high-profile journals with broad readership, which has increased the impact of this scholarship across academic disciplines.

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