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Vital lessons at orangutan 'Oxbridge'
The discovery of a group of privileged primates teaching
sophisticated behaviour hints at
the way human intellect has evolved
Robin McKie, science editor
Sunday April 9, 2006
Suaq Balimbing, in the Kluet swamps, is one of Sumatra's least attractive
destinations. It has mud, a profusion of biting insects, oppressive heat, and
little else. To humans, it is a place to avoid. But to the island's wild
orangutans, Suaq is a magnet. It is the simian equivalent of Oxbridge, a place
to obtain a privileged education so they can stand out among their peers.
At Suaq they learn from other wild orangutans how to make tools, to play
jumping games and even to blow kisses to each other at night. Stay at Suaq and
you become a special animal.
And that, say researchers - writing in the latest issue of Scientific American -
has critical implications for humans. The existence of a place in the wild where
apes undergo intense social learning suggests a route by which humans acquired
their intelligence, as we evolved from primitive apemen to Homo sapiens.
'Our analyses of orangutans suggest that not only does culture - social
learning of special skills - promote intelligence, it favours the evolution of
greater and greater intelligence in populations over time,' says Carel van
Schaik, director of the Anthropological Institute at Zürich University.
In other words, apemen got their big brains by hanging about in groups, learning
social skills and tool-making - like orangutans. And as the generations passed,
apemen with bigger brains did better and better in these groups. The end result
was Homo sapiens.
Schaik and his colleagues began observing orangutans in the wild several years
ago and chose Suaq because the swamp supplies abundant food for orangutans all
year round. As a result, the site is visited regularly by dozens of them. 'It is
great for orangutans, but hell for researchers,' Schaik adds.
And it was here the scientists made their first, astonishing discovery. The
orangutans of Suaq create and wield a variety of tools, carefully fashioning
twigs and sticks to poke into ant, termite and bee nests to collect insects and
honey and to prise open nuts and fruits. Often a twig is held in an orangutan's
mouth, then delicately moved around a nest. Then it is withdrawn and the honey
Chimpanzees have occasionally been observed using twigs in a similar fashion,
but orangutans in the wild have never been seen to make and use tools before.
Crucially, orangutans at neighbouring sites do not display such skills.
The orangutans of Suaq also say good night to their families by blowing a loud
raspberry noise which is often amplified by cupping hands. In addition, they use
leaves as protective gloves or napkins. Again, such behaviour is unique to Suaq,
a place that has its own distinctive orangutan culture.
All these habits were learnt from other orangutans and the benefits have
clearly made it worthwhile for them to stick together in large numbers despite
their natural tendency to be reclusive and reserved. The skills they pick up at
Suaq - like honey eating - clearly gives them an advantage in surviving life in
the wild. Dozens of them gather there to cavort in trees overhanging the swamp.
'And when an orangutan in Suaq has acquired more of these tricks than its less
fortunate cousins elsewhere, it has done so because it had greater opportunities
for social learning throughout its life,' adds Schaik. 'In brief, social
learning may bootstrap an animal's intellectual performance onto a higher
It is the orangutan equivalent of going to a good school, an act that can
confer critical advantages in later life just as it does with a human child.
However, there is more to social learning than explaining why some youngsters
get on in life and others do not, Schaik argues.
Over millions of years individual animals of high intelligence do best in
top-stream institutions and will be favoured by natural selection. Thus our
ancestors picked up the habit of social learning millions of years ago and
slowly evolved bigger brains as a consequence. It was all about education,
Such an account does not explain why humanity's ancestors, alone among the great
apes, evolved extreme intelligence, however. Other factors must be involved,
otherwise orangutans would be as clever as humans today. On the other hand, the
remarkable behaviour of orangutans in rich cultural settings like Suaq makes
the gap between ourselves and the great apes seem less profound than it might
otherwise appear, adds Schaik. 'Quite simply, culture promotes intelligence,' he