The nature and evolution of intelligence in orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus)

Abstract

Orangutans share many intellectual qualities with African great apes and humans, likely because of their recent common ancestry. They may also show unique intellectual adaptations because of their long evolutionary divergence from the African lineage. This paper assesses orangutan intelligence in light of this evolutionary history. Evidence derives from observations of juvenile ex-captive orangutans reintroduced to free forest life by the Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Project, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. The intellectual qualities shared by great apes and humans point to a distinct “great ape” intelligence with hierarchization as a pivotal cognitive mechanism. Evolutionary reconstructions jibe with this view and suggest that technically difficult foods may have been key selection pressures. Orangutans should then show hierarchical intelligence when obtaining difficult foods. Evidence on ex-captive orangutans' techniques for processing difficult foods concurs. Intellectual qualities distinct to orangutans may owe to arboreal travel pressures; in particular arboreality may aggravate foraging problems. Evidence confirms that ex-captive orangutans' techniques for accessing difficult foods located arboreally are intellectually complex—i.e. they show hierarchization. These findings suggest other factors probably important to understanding great ape and orangutan forms of intelligence and their evolutionary origins.

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Russon, A.E. The nature and evolution of intelligence in orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). Primates 39, 485–503 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02557571

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Key Words

  • Orangutans
  • Great ape intelligence
  • Hierarchical intelligence
  • Great ape evolution
  • Evolution of intelligence