As some of you know one of my big interests is Primatology. Yes I LOVE apes, monkeys, and the whole 9 yards! 🙂 Back in 2016 an article appeared in the international weekly science journal “Nature” reporting that monkeys “flake stone tools.”
We humans like to think ourselves unique but that might not altogether be the case after all. As the article mentions “Sharp edged stone flakes, struck from larger cores, are the primary evidence for the earliest stone technology.” That’s very true but monkeys seem to be right behind us! It has been observed that the Capuchin monkey in Brazil deliberately breaks stones producing sharp-edged flakes and cores that appear to be intentionally produced hominin tools! The article concludes, “The production of archaeologically visible cores and flakes is therefore no longer unique to the human lineage…”.
But that’s not all. Also in 2016 “Nature” reported that Brazil’s Capuchin monkeys may have used worn stones as stone tools hundreds of years ago and if so then this provides some of the earliest evidence for stone tool use by a species other than humans or chimps!
The oldest stone tools (Oldowan tools) made by ancient human relatives date back possibly to 3 mya but the archaeological record for other primates and stone tool use is scant. What we do know is that the Bearded Capuchins are known to use stone anvils to remove the nasty tasting skin of cashews among other things. When researchers from the University of Oxford excavated a small area in a national park in Brazil in which Capuchins live they found no less than 69 buried stones with cut marks seen on anvil stones. This excavation was led by Michael Haslam and when C14 dating was employed it gave a date of 750 years ago! So Capuchins have been producing and using stone tools for a while now.
Turning across the pond….the oldest stone tools used by Chimps have been found in West Africa and they are believed to be thousands of years older than previous finds from the same area. What is suggested by this discovery is that Chimps may pass down their know-how from generation to generation and what that means is likely so does Brazil’s Capuchin monkeys! In the case of chimps they appear to have been passing down this stone technology for at least the past 4,000 years or more and I suspect the same is true when it comes to South America’s Capuchin monkeys as well.
When it comes to primates other than humans we tend to know very little even though there is much speculation and theorizing. The fossil record of chimps is very sparse and we don’t really know much about the lifestyles of ancient chimps. Stone tool production (intentional or unintentional) and use is likely VERY ancient and I would say MANY primates have been making and using stone tools for a long, long time! In fact, it just might be something innate in ALL PRIMATES.
In research led by Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary (Canada) stone flacks were dated using radioactive elements found in soils and that research revealed stone tools that were examined had actually been made by chimps and not ancient human ancestors!
So here’s an interesting question. Did chimps copy stone tool making and use from ancient human ancestors OR did HUMANS copy it from other primates? FACT is we DON’T know and likely will NEVER know!
This is not intended to diminish human uniqueness because in many ways we ARE unique among primates, however, we must realize that not everything about us is unique and this appears especially so when it comes to stone tools. And in case you don’t know it some birds use stone tools also but that is a matter for a future post perhaps.
Oh yes, one more thing…..the Capuchin monkey of South America is readily identifiable as it is also known as the “organ grinder monkey.” That’s right! They were the monkeys used by organ grinders and also used in many films and television shows!