The breakthrough study of Dean et al. (Science 335:1114–1118, 2012) claimed that imitation, teaching, and prosociality were crucial for cumulative cultural learning. None of their child participants solved the final stage of their puzzlebox without social support, but it was not directly tested whether the solution was beyond the reach of individual children. We provide this missing asocial control condition, showing that children can reach the final stage of the puzzlebox without social support. We interpret these findings in the light of current understanding of cumulative culture: there are currently conflicting definitions of cumulative culture, which we argue can lead to drastically different interpretations of (these) experimental results. We conclude that the Dean et al. (Science 335:1114–1118, 2012) puzzlebox fulfils a process-focused definition, but does not fulfil the (frequently used) product-focused definition. Accordingly, the precise role of social support for the apparent taxonomic distribution of cumulative culture and its ontogeny warrants further testing.
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- Cumulative culture
- Social learning
- Ratchet effect
- Problem solving