Chimpanzee material culture: What are its limits and why?

W. C. McGrew*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

8 Citations (Scopus)


It is a truism to say that behaviour and ideas do not fossilize. Hence, reconstruction of the origins of culture depends on artefacts and other remnants, the use and meaning of which are then inferred. Such inference may seem simple in principle but it is difficult in practice, for several reasons: First, cultural objects are not always distinguishable from natural ones; second, only a subset of enduring objects remains while perishable ones have been lost; and third, deposition and sometimes recovery is nonrandom, and so what remains in the archaeological record is biased. The upshot of this can be summed up in two aphorisms: 'Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' and 'Presence proves only possibility, not probability'. In the case of the former, one could not infer that early hominids did not use digging sticks, as these tools would inevitably be lost to us. In the case of the latter, concentrations of fragments of fired clay need not imply human agency, as natural sources may be equally likely.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Origins of Human Behaviour
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)0203168755, 9781134998661
ISBN (Print)004445015X, 9780044450153
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2003


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