On the origin of cultural diversity: Immigrant orangutan males as cultural vectors and the evolution of tolerance vs. xenophobia

Project leader

Julia Mörchen, PhD Student, Department of Anthropology, University of Zürich, Switzerland & MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Leipzig, Germany

Project staff

Marie Padberg (Student, University of Zürich AIM, Switzerland)
Nora Slania (Student, University of Zürich AIM, Switzerland)
Frances Luhn (Student, University of Zürich AIM, Switzerland)
Jacinthe Grima (Student, University of Zürich AIM, Switzerland)


Throughout human history immigrants have always been drivers of cultural change, contributing to the diversity and formation of local cultures by transmitting new knowledge and skills. Nevertheless, xenophobic tendencies that prevent beneficial mutual exchange are on the rise. There is evidence that both tendencies, being tolerant as well as being xenophobe toward strangers, are as such deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. This project aims to examine the evolutionary roots of the underlying behavioral adaptions of immigrants and locals to the consequences of migration, by using the highly cultural and socially tolerant Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) as a model species. We will investigate the behavioural strategies individuals use to cope with the challenges of and at the same time make use of the benefits of migration. Therefore we will examine the social learning patterns and cultural transmission of knowledge between local philopatric females and their offspring with immigrant males (so-called `unflanged males`) during tolerant associations. The goal for this Ph.D. project is to examine how informational and social benefits drawn from tolerant cultural transmission between foreigners affect individuals` survival and integration into the host community. In that regard, using extant Asian great apes as a model species will shed light on which factors influenced cultural exchange, tolerance, and xenophobia during human evolution.