Enculturation of apes

Much of the information we have about cognition in great apes has come from research projects involving intensive study of one or two apes, usually chimpanzees. In most of these research projects the apes have had extensive interaction with humans during their early development. These interactions not only take the form of explicit cognitive and behavioral tests, but they also include teaching and guidance. The apes acquire sophistication with human artifacts including computers and other electronic or mechanical objects.

The environment for these animals is complex, and not typical of the environment in which apes evolved. Although some of the ecological challenges met by animals living in the natural environment are missing, the early experience of these animals is enriched and challenged in different ways. Apes who experience this intensive experience with humans are called "enculturated" apes, those who at some level have been exposed to and integrated into certain human social/cultural experiences. Because they have not been exposed to their natural environment, some researchers question the value of the conclusions based on their cognitive abilities. Clearly, these animals have had enriched early experiences, including direct teaching of skills by human caretakers, and are not representative of chimpanzees developing with their mothers in the wild environment. This challenge has been met by the response that although the cognitive tasks provided to encul-turated animals differ from those in the natural environment, they challenge the cognitive skills required for survival in the wild.

Further, the possible enhancement of cognitive skills provided by the enriched environment shows the extents and limits of cognitive abilities under circumstances conducive to high levels of performance. The results of these studies tell us what cognitive skills great apes are capable of; the extensive behavioral studies of great apes in their natural environment show us how they use these cognitive abilities to solve daily social and environmental challenges. Although an enculturated ape has had a different early environment, he or she continues to be an ape and to show cognitive skills available to an ape. Integration of data from field and laboratory continues to provide the richest understanding of great ape cognition.

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