Rice basket study rethinks roots of human culture

November 26, 2015

A new study from the University of Exeter has found that teaching is not essential for people to learn to make effective tools. The results counter established views about how human tools and technologies come to improve from generation to generation and point to an explanation for the extraordinary success of humans as a species. The study reveals that although teaching is useful, it is not essential for cultural progress because people can use reasoning and reverse engineering of existing items to work out how to make tools.

The capacity to improve the efficacy of tools and technologies from generation to generation, known as cumulative culture, is unique to humans and has driven our ecological success. It has enabled us to inhabit the coldest and most remote regions on Earth and even have a permanent base in space. The way in which our cumulative culture has boomed compared to other species however remains a mystery.

It had long been thought that the human capacity for cumulative culture was down to special methods of learning from others - such as teaching and imitation - that enable information to be transmitted with high fidelity.

To test this idea, the researchers recreated conditions encountered during human evolution by asking groups of people to build rice baskets from everyday materials. Some people made baskets alone, while others worked were in 'transmission chain' groups, where each group member could learn from the previous person in the chain either by imitating their actions, receiving teaching or simply examining the baskets made by previous participants.

Teaching produced the most robust baskets but after six attempts all groups showed incremental improvements in the amount of rice their baskets could carry.

Dr Alex Thornton from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall said: "Our study helps uncover the process of incremental improvements seen in the tools that humans have used for millennia. While a knowledgeable teacher clearly brings important advantages, our study shows that this is not a limiting factor to cultural progress. Humans do much more than learn socially, we have the ability to think independently and use reason to develop new ways of doing things. This could be the secret to our success as a species."

The results of the study shed light on ancient human society and help to bridge the cultural chasm between humans and other species. The researchers say that to fully understand those elements that make us different from other animals, future work should focus on the mental abilities of individuals not solely mechanisms of social learning.

Cognitive requirements of cumulative culture: teaching is useful but not essential by Elena Zwirner and Alex Thornton is published in Scientific Reports
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About the University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university and in the top one percent of institutions globally. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 19,000 students and is one of the global top 100 universities according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-16, positioned 93rd. Exeter is also ranked 7th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2016, 9th in the Guardian University Guide 2016 and 10th in The Complete University Guide 2016. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the University ranked 16th nationally, with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality. Exeter was named The Times and The Sunday Times Sports University of the Year 2015-16, in recognition of excellence in performance, education and research. Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.

The University has four campuses. The Streatham and St Luke's campuses are in Exeter and there are two campuses in Cornwall, Penryn and Truro. The 2014-2015 academic year marks the 10-year anniversary of the two Cornwall campuses. In a pioneering arrangement in the UK, the Penryn Campus is jointly owned and managed with Falmouth University. At the campus, University of Exeter students can study programmes in the following areas: Animal Behaviour, Conservation Biology and Ecology, English, Environmental Science, Evolutionary Biology, Geography, Geology, History, Human Sciences, Marine Biology, Mining and Minerals Engineering, Politics and International Relations, Renewable Energy and Zoology.

The University has invested strategically to deliver more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in the past few years; including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange at Penryn - together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute. There are plans for further investment between now and 2016. http://www.exeter.ac.uk/cornwall

About the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation (CEC)

Staff at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, based on the Penryn Campus, undertake cutting-edge research that focusses on whole organism biology. The CEC has three interlinked research groups: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation, and Evolution which constitute 40 academics and over 100 early career researchers. It engages widely with businesses, charities and government agencies and organisations in Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and beyond to translate its research into societal impact. Staff at the CEC deliver educational programs to some 500 undergraduate and 100 postgraduate students.

A new £5.5 million Science and Engineering Research Support Facility (SERSF) is currently under construction at the Penryn Campus. The facility will bring pioneering business, science and engineering together and will provide space for the growing CEC alongside the University of Exeter Business School, which is expanding into Cornwall, and the University's Marine Renewables team.

The University of Exeter and Falmouth University are founding partners in the Combined Universities in Cornwall (CUC), a unique collaboration between six universities and colleges to promote regional economic regeneration through Higher Education, funded mainly by the European Union (Objective One and Convergence), the South West Regional Development Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, with support from Cornwall Council. http://biosciences.exeter.ac.uk/cec/

University of Exeter

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