Animals and Culture

Written by Alana Jolley

September 5, 2014

Animals and Culture

Animals and culture.  Do animals have culture?  Can animals learn culture? What are the criteria to determine whether something is “culture” or not culture?  Studying What is Culture on this website is a good place to start getting answers to the above questions.  However, these are questions that most likely will never have conclusive answers.  Experts, due to their own enculturation, experience, and education, view and interpret what is culture differently.  They may disagree, as well, on ways that culture may be learned by both humans and non-humans.

The reason these questions have come to my mind recently, as a Cultural Anthropologist, is because I visited a Water Buffalo farm in Italy over the summer.  The Water Buffalo I observed, studied, and photographed seemed to have some degree of cultural learning.  Really? I was surprised.

I was completely taken back when I saw hundreds of Water Buffaloes going about their lives with no schedules.  They were grazing in the outdoors, wallowing in their pools, going indoors when they wanted to, and being milked when they were ready.  No humans were herding them or coaxing them to do anything.  In fact, I began to think that being a Water Buffalo on the Tenuta Vannulo farm would be a great life.


No, I’m not eating ice cream, but a ball of Buffalo Mozzarella cheese on a fork. It tastes nothing like cow’s milk mozzarella – delicious!

I teach my students that culture is learned, shared, dynamic, and passed down through generations.  The most symbolic way humans pass on culture is through language, of course, but the Water Buffalo I observed certainly had a degree of cultural understanding, even without symbolic language.  They do not have clocks or other signals, but they obviously know when to do what.  Inside their shelters are showers that operate whenever a buffalo walks under them.  There are giant massage machines (they are yellow in the picture above) that rotate off and on when buffaloes approach or leave the machines.  One buffalo I watched, pushed another buffalo away from the massage machine in order to get her own massage!  Without anyone guiding them, the Water Buffalo “ladies” walk into the milking machines and are milked – twice a day.

Have these behaviors been socially transmitted among the buffaloes?  Do they teach each other? or do they learn from observing their elders?  Dogs can learn things, but they can’t teach other dogs. Chimpanzees do teach each other certain skills and behaviors.  Think of the interactions of the buffaloes with technology: showers, massage machines, and the milking machines.  We have to classify these technological items as cultural artifacts.  Ants have a degree of culture, but it isn’t really culture – it is instinctual behavior which cannot be changed.  We have to think that the Water Buffaloes are not behaving in instinctual ways. A Water Buffalo, physically pushing another out of the way for her own desired pleasure seems to fit a learned behavior.  Doesn’t it?  Explore More!

So . . . we don’t have conclusive answers.  But that is a good thing; because it motivates us to think deeper, and to learn more.





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