Evolutionary psychology of spatial representations in the Hominidae

Daniel Haun, J. Call, G. Janzen, S. Levinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Comparatively little is known about the inherited primate background underlying human cognition, the human cognitive “wild-type.” Yet it is possible to trace the evolution of human cognitive abilities and tendencies by contrasting the skills of our nearest cousins, not just chimpanzees, but all the extant great apes, thus showing what we are likely to have inherited from the common ancestor [1]. By looking at human infants early in cognitive development, we can also obtain insights into native cognitive biases in our species [2]. Here, we focus on spatial memory, a central cognitive domain. We show, first, that all nonhuman great apes and 1-year-old human infants exhibit a preference for place over feature strategies for spatial memory. This suggests the common ancestor of all great apes had the same preference. We then examine 3-year-old human children and find that this preference reverses. Thus, the continuity between our species and the other great apes is masked early in human ontogeny. These findings, based on both phylogenetic and ontogenetic contrasts, open up the prospect of a systematic evolutionary psychology resting upon the cladistics of cognitive preferences.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1736-1740
Number of pages5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 5 Sep 2006


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