Human cognitive ecology: an instructive framework for comparative primatology


  • Janet Dixon Keller

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    1. Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Illinois
    • Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois, 109 Davenport Hall, 607 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana, IL 61801
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In this review, research on human cognitive ecology is compared with studies of the cognitive ecologies of apes–especially the common chimpanzee. The objective was to assess the feasibility of extending an activity-theory framework developed in studies of humans to an integrated approach for studying the cognitive accomplishments and skills of other primates living in the wild. Six generalizations were abstracted from studies of humans: 1) Social and material environments are arranged to facilitate production. 2) Human activity is shaped by conceptual and cultural principles that provide underlying logic for working knowledge and practice. 3) Schemata (multimodal, mental representations of procedures, strategies, and techniques) govern performance in a domain. 4) Working knowledge, skills, and social identities are coconstructed in communities of practice. 5) Rehearsal improves skilled performances, from which reputations as well as material products are derived. 6) Planning and emergence are in productive tension in human practices. These generalizations are applied to findings in the literature regarding the behavior of chimpanzees and other apes in the wild to assess the potential utility of a situated-activity approach for comparative studies of primate cognition. It is argued in the Discussion that schemata constitute a common core of higher primate intelligence. Planning, emergence, and alterations of the environment to facilitate production further characterize human and chimpanzee or gorilla behaviors to varying degrees. Less apparent in the nonhuman-primate literature is evidence of governing principles, rehearsal, and skill-based reputations or identities entailing theories of mind. Nonetheless, recent observations in the wild suggest that further research is warranted to explore the rudiments of each of these components to enhance our understanding of the ecology of primate cognition and its evolutionary history. Am. J. Primatol. 62:229-241, 2004. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.