‘Captivity bias’ in animal tool use and its implications for the evolution of hominin technology

Michael Haslam

Abstract

Animals in captive or laboratory settings may outperform wild animals of the same species in both frequency and diversity of tool use, a phenomenon here termed ‘captivity bias’. Although speculative at this stage, a logical conclusion from this concept is that animals whose tool-use behaviour is observed solely under natural conditions may be judged cognitively or physically inferior than if they had also been tested or observed under controlled captive conditions. In turn, this situation creates a potential problem for studies of the behaviour of extinct members of the human family tree—the hominins—as hominin cognitive abilities are often judged on material evidence of tool-use behaviour left in the archaeological record. In this review, potential factors contributing to captivity bias in primates (including increased contact between individuals engaged in tool use, guidance or shaping of tool-use behaviour by other tool-users and increased free time and energy) are identified and assessed for their possible effects on the behaviour of the Late Pleistocene hominin Homo floresiensis. The captivity bias concept provides one way to uncouple hominin tool use from cognition, by considering hominins as subject to the same adaptive influences as other tool-using animals.

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