Culture is a huge part of mankind, and for decades people assumed culture was limited only to our species. But the more that we observe other intelligent animals, we realise that culture may be far more widespread than we first thought.
Culture | ˈkʌltʃə
The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. Culture is information, habits, and behaviour. It can be passed around socially, it can be learned, remembered, and shared.
The earliest awareness of non-human animal culture is a study going back to the 1950s on Japanese macaque monkeys. One day a monkey grabs a sweet potato and washes it in water before eating it. Then the monkeys in the first monkey’s social network all start washing their sweet potato. Soon, all the monkeys on this island are washing their potatoes – something only the macaques on this island are doing. Learned from others and shared with others. And later Jane Goodall made animal culture famous by her studies on chimpanzees. Monkeys and chimpanzees are so closely related to humans. We have culture, so it’s not that surprising that they do too.
Since those early studies, however, scientists have added more animals to the culture list, including elephants. For generations, those who have known elephants have witnessed their complex society with highly evolved social capabilities – leading many to believe that they are highly cultured animals.
The start of any cultural society begins with a particular group’s social structure. Elephants live in matriarchal groups with anywhere between a few to a few dozen individuals, all led by an older female. Within this group, there is the matriarch, her sisters, their offspring and even the next generation of offspring. It’s a multigenerational society and they do everything together – from feeding or mud wallowing to helping raise each other’s young. This shared learning within a big group is the first indication of culture, and it’s extremely important for this species.
By being in a big herd, younger elephants can watch the behaviour of their elders and copy that behaviour. This is a much more efficient way of learning when compared to individuals learning by trial and error. For example, if every elephant had to learn what plants were toxic and what plants were not, there would be a lot fewer elephants around. Individual learning is limited to your own experiences. But with social learning, you learn from the experiences of everyone.
Rituals of mourning and grief
By being part of a larger social group and by learning from one another, elephants establish bonds with each other. These bonds are so strong that when a member of the herd dies, elephants go through their various mourning rituals. Elephants mourn the dead by returning to the place in which the individual died or by sniffing and moving the bones around. Approaching the bones slowly and systematically investigate and caress them with their trunk, and cover the site with leaves and sand. Perhaps this ritual of covering the bones could be parallelled with burial rituals in some of our cultures?
In one case researchers observed a matriarch from one herd collapse only to be helped up by another matriarch from another family. After falling again, they stayed together with the second matriarch pushing and pulling the fallen elephant to get her up for an hour. Sadly she eventually died. Many females from different families came to see the body during the next week, with some becoming quite upset. Some rocked back and forth while others pulled on the body, almost as if showing signs of grief.
There’s a saying that suggests “an elephant never forgets”, which comes from the idea that these animals remember for up to fifty years. Elephants have fantastic long term memories, which plays a critical role in their cultural lives. Having the ability to remember and recognise both friends and enemies.
Maybe the most important thing when it comes to animal culture: culture doesn’t just tell an animal how to live – it tells them how to survive. In 2016 we experienced one of the worst droughts in decades. A study within the Greater Kruger National Park found that survival was higher in elephant groups with matriarchs old enough to remember the last time there was a drought this bad. They held some cultural memory that reminded them where the last sources of water might be, even if those sources were hundreds of kilometres away.
These older elephants are the keepers of knowledge, and that’s culture. So, when these older elephants aren’t around to pass on knowledge to the younger ones, they might not survive – if they die, the knowledge of how to survive in this area might die with them.
Elephants at Londolozi, have built a great trust for humans over the years of being viewed from the vehicles, allowing this trust to pass through the generations. Providing great game viewing when immersed within a herd of elephants. Forming part of their culture as they know they can trust the humans.