Anthropology (ANTH) 436

Topics in Primate Cognition (Revision 1)

ANTH 436

Delivery Mode: Individualized study online

Credits: 3

Area of Study: Social Science

Prerequisite: ANTH 278 or ANTH 310 or equivalents

Faculty: Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences

ANTH 436 does not have a Challenge for Credit option.

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Nonhuman primates have long captured our attention because of their likeness to humans, and this is especially true with respect to their intelligence. The close behavioural and genetic affinities that we share with nonhuman primates makes it easy to assume that they “think just like us,” and that they “see” the world in the same manner as do humans using similar (if perhaps less-developed) intellectual abilities, thought processes, and mental representations. But is this really the case? This course explores this question more deeply, and further asks whether primate cognition is truly unique among other animals. Students will explore in substantial detail topics such as the evolutionary origins of the “primate brain,” and they will survey both foundational and more recent research that has been conducted on various domains of primate intelligence, such as the ability to form abstract concepts, to communicate using “language-like” vocalizations, and to hold a “theory of mind” with respect to others around them.


The course consists of the following eleven units:

  • Unit 1 – An introduction to the primates and to the study of primate cognition
  • Unit 2 – The primate brain: Where did it come from, and what’s so special about it? (Part I)
  • Unit 3 – The primate brain: Where did it come from, and what’s so special about it? (Part II)
  • Unit 4 – The primate brain: Where did it come from, and what’s so special about it? (Part III)
  • Unit 5 – What primates know about the physical world
  • Unit 6 – What primates know about their social world: Abstract social concepts
  • Unit 7 – Social knowledge continued: Theory of mind, intentionality, and perspective-taking
  • Unit 8 – Primate vocal communication: What do primate vocal signals “mean” and how do they “work”?
  • Unit 9 – “Language” in apes and humans
  • Unit 10 – “Culture” in primates and humans
  • Unit 11 – Is there an adequate theory of primate cognition?


Your final grade in this course will be based on the marks you achieve on two essay assignments, a midterm exam and a final quiz.

To receive credit for ANTH 436, you must receive at least a minimum grade of D (50 percent) on assignment 2 and the midterm examination, as well as a composite course grade of at least D (50 percent). Any missed exams or grades will result in a zero (0) which will go towards the final grade. The weighting of the composite grade is as follows:

Activity Weighting
Study Report 25%
Midterm Exam 30%
Research Essay 30%
Final Quiz 15%
Total 100%

The midterm examination for this course must be taken online with an AU-approved exam invigilator at an approved invigilation centre. It is your responsibility to ensure your chosen invigilation centre can accommodate online exams. For a list of invigilators who can accommodate online exams, visit the Exam Invigilation Network.

To learn more about assignments and examinations, please refer to Athabasca University's online Calendar.

Course Materials


Tomasello, M., & Call, J. (1997). Primate cognition. Oxford University Press, USA.

Other Materials

The course materials also include a study guide, course information, and reading and video files.

Athabasca University reserves the right to amend course outlines occasionally and without notice. Courses offered by other delivery methods may vary from their individualized-study counterparts.

Opened in Revision 1, July 20, 2017.