My main research explores what makes human cognition unique - as well as why (and also, when this happened during our evolution and also during our development). In particular I study the factors and the prehistorical beginnings that enabled human forms of culture: i.e. cumulative culture – culture that evolves over time by way of treating earlier cultural items as stepping stones for later ones.
I do this by studying non-human animals (mainly great apes), human adults and human children (also cross-culturally - in collaboration with Mark Nielsen) with a diverse set of methodological approaches, combining insights from developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary archaeology, behavioural ecology and biological anthropology.
Through broadening the scope of species examined, extending my findings into our evolutionary past and by developing research paradigms that can be applied non-linguistically, I aim to probe the origins of cumulative culture in human ontogeny and phylogeny, as well as the distribution of cumulative culture across the animal kingdom.
So far, my work on culture points produced three (related) main outcomes:
1. In their natural state, great apes do not copy actions. And because imitation includes action copying, they thus do not imitate.
2. Great ape tools and their usage derive from "latent solutions" (Tennie et al. 2009 Phil. Trans.): behaviour mainly fuelled by evolved cognitive skills, but excitable by social influences.
3. Cultural behaviour outside of latent solutions may have evolved late in the human lineage. Early Stone Tools should be currently best regarded as latent solutions.
Other topics I study include potential physiological reasons for chimpanzee hunting behaviour (a behavioural ecological perspective on their hunting) and the evolution of human-like cooperation (especially of reputation-based cooperation).
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