Cultural assemblages show nested structure in humans and chimpanzees but not orangutans.
The evolution of hominin culture is well-documented in the archeological and fossil record, but such a record is largely absent for nonhuman primates. An alternative approach to studying cultural evolution is to examine patterns of modern cultural variation. In this article we measure nestedness across human and great ape "cultural repertoires" to gain insight into the accumulation and maintenance of putative cultural diversity in these species. Cultural assemblages are nested if cultures with a small repertoire of traits tend to comprise a proper subset of those traits present in more complex cultures. This nesting will occur if some traits are sequentially gained or lost, which may be because of the differential dispersal or extinction of traits. Here we apply statistical tools from ecology to examine the degree of nestedness in four datasets documenting the presence or absence of specific cultural traits across indigenous human populations in North America and New Guinea. We then compare the human data to patterns observed for putative cultural traits in chimpanzee and orangutan populations. In both humans and chimpanzees, cultural diversity is highly nonrandom, showing significant nested structure for all of the datasets examined. We find no evidence for nestedness in the orangutan cultural data. These findings are consistent with a sequential "layering" of cultural diversity in humans and chimpanzees, but not orangutans. Such an interpretation implies that the traits required for sequential cultural evolution first appeared in the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans.