Wild Cultures

A Comparison between Chimpanzee and Human Cultures

Wild Cultures

How do chimpanzees say, 'I want to have sex with you?' By clipping a leaf or knocking on a tree trunk? How do they eat live aggressive ants? By using a short stick with one hand or long stick with both? Ivorian and Tanzanian chimpanzees answer these questions differently, as would humans from France and China if asked how they eat rice. Christophe Boesch takes readers into the lives of chimpanzees from different African regions, highlighting the debate about culture. His ethnography reveals how simple techniques have evolved into complex ones, how teaching styles differ, how material culture widens access to new food sources and how youngsters learn culture. This journey reveals many parallels between humans and chimpanzees and points to striking differences. Written in a vivid and accessible style, Wild Cultures places the reader in social and ecological contexts that shed light on our twin cultures.


"We have long been searching for the key to answering the question: "What makes us human?" In this fascinating and engaging book, Boesch asks if the answer is 'Culture'. He takes us along on his journey, sharing his discoveries of the amazing abilities of wild chimpanzees, for example in collaborating in hunting monkeys and in communicating symbolically with natural gestures. Chapter to chapter, weaving together methods and findings from anthropology, comparative biology, ecology, comparative psychology, and evolution, Boesch synthesizes current knowledge of the psychology of wild and captive chimpanzees with current knowledge of the psychology of humans from diverse cultures. We arrive at a compelling new understanding of the diversity and influence of 'wild cultures'. With this book, Boesch has provided my developmental comparative psychology students, laypeople, and chimpanzee enthusiasts with greater insight into what makes us human, and what makes chimpanzees uniquely themselves."
Professor Kim A. Bard, Director of the Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology, Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, UK

"A sustained and compelling argument for the ethnography of animal societies. With simple logic, decades of ethological data, and many well-chosen examples, Boesch masterfully skewers numerous recent claims of human uniqueness by "hardcore experimental psychologists": contrary to theoretical fashions, chimpanzees cooperate, display altruistic behaviour, invent symbols, and adhere to cultural conventions; none of these are uniquely human characteristics. Better than any other single source, Boesch analyses the deep causes of apparently divergent findings from the laboratory and the wild--nobody interested in comparative cognition should ignore this book. This is a frank, balanced evaluation of studies with apes, both in the wild and in captivity. Theoretical dogmas are shattered against the rocks of his decades of systematic data on wild chimpanzees from across the African continent. Should be required reading for every philosopher and experimental psychologist, and will enrich anybody interested in culture, cognition, and chimpanzees."
David A. Leavens, PhD, University of Sussex

"It is hard to imagine a better guide to chimpanzee culture than Christophe Boesch, who for decades has followed these apes in the tropical forest. The author lays out the culture question in all of its richness without any of the anthropocentrism usually surrounding this issue. The result is a highly satisfactory first-hand account of how wild chimpanzees shape their own environment and society."
Frans de Waal, author of "The Age of Empathy"

"This work serves as a comprehensive chimpanzee ethnography that focuses on the increasing diversity of cultural behaviors observed and reported among chimpanzee populations; these, in turn, then become the basis for comparison with, and evaluation of, human culture. This well-written, well-documented book is a significant contribution to evolutionary anthropology. Highly recommended."
R.A. Delgado Jr., University of Southern California for Choice Magazine

'Remarkable findings …' The Times Literary Supplement

'This work serves as a comprehensive chimpanzee ethnography that focuses on the increasing diversity of cultural behaviors observed and reported among chimpanzee populations; these, in turn, then become the basis for comparison with, and evaluation of, human culture. This well-written, well-documented book is a significant contribution to evolutionary anthropology. Highly recommended.' R. A. Delgado, Jr, Choice

'… this book should be read for its rich ethnography of our fascinating near evolutionary cousin.' The Quarterly Review of Botany

'This elegantly written book is a must-read for anyone who teaches or studies 'what makes us human'.' Folia Primatologica

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