Human know-how requires precise cultural transmission – our know-how needs to be copied in order to be performed. As a result of repeated copying, modern human know-how culturally evolved to become “supra-individual”. No human could reinvent a laptop computer without cultural access to a vast amount of underlying know-how (an experimental outcome proven millions of times in human history prior to the invention of computers).

Surprising to many, comparative cognitive experiments with non-human great apes (henceforth apes) clearly show that ape know-how does not require copying. Instead, ape know-how consists of “latent solutions”: uniform reinnovations done by individuals in the absence of cultural access to others’ know-how. While the specific mix of expressed know-how that in any ape population is often additionally “socially mediated” (socially “catalyzed”), each ape can therefore reinnovate the underlying behavioural patterns anew – entirely from scratch. In sum, apes already “know how” on their own and they do not need to copy. Indeed, when properly tested, apes consistently fail to copy know-how that is beyond their individual reach (this was already noted by W. Köhler a century ago).

There are good reasons therefore to not label ape behaviour as cultural at all, but the definition of animal culture has been diluted so much over the years, that ape behaviour (just like reptile and insect behaviour) must fall under the cultural definition, too. Yet, what is lacking in apes is a specific variant of culture: apes lack copying and therefore they lack cumulative culture. Without copying of know-how, the know-how itself cannot evolve culturally. Know-how can still evolve, but it can only evolve indirectly, namely via biological pathways. The resulting biologically enabled know-how will however evolve rather slowly. While ape archaeology is still in its infancy, its preliminary results support the notion of slow evolution of know-how in the ape record.

The same slow evolution of know-how can be seen in our own – i.e. in the hominin – archaeological record, strongly suggesting that these hominins likewise did not copy know-how, and therefore did not culturally evolve know-how. Early hominin know-how instead was biological, just like ape know-how is. As I have argued in the past, this approach best explains the relative stases observed in early stone tools (the earliest form of tools in the archaeological record). If this biological hypothesis is true, cultural transmission via copying of know-how (and with it, supra-individual know-how) evolved much later in our lineage than is currently assumed.