Monkey Tools and Early Human Ingenuity

Wild capuchin monkeys in Brazil produce sharp stone flakes by accident, causing some researchers to suggest a rethink of the beginnings of human tool use.

By Bob Grant | October 25, 2016

A male capuchin monkey in Brazil's Serra da Capivara National ParkWIKIMEDIA, TIAGO FALOTICOFlaked stone tools have long held a special place in the concept of humanity’s rise from just another animal to one that would evolve to conquer the biosphere. But our ancestors may have struck upon this important innovation quite by accident, according to researchers studying wild capuchin monkeys in Brazil. Those monkeys use large rocks to crack nuts, dig for roots, and attract mates in their forest home. Scientists working in northeastern Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park found that the primate labors often result in stone flakes that bear a striking resemblance to knapped stone pieces that are commonly thought to be critical implements of early human technology. The findings, which may challenge claims of millennia-old human tool use at archaeological sites scattered across the globe, were published last week (October 20) in Nature.

The findings “help illuminate capabilities of our primate brethren that we thought only we and our immediate ancestors had,” Florida Atlantic University’s James Adovasio, who wasn’t involved with the study, told Scientific American. “They make us rethink how special we are.”

While other primates, such as chimpanzees, are known to use rocks as nut crackers, the stone flakes produced from their industrious activity are not quite as human-tool–like as the flakes produced by capuchins. “You would think that they are indeed made by hominins,” Tomos Proffitt, a University of Oxford postdoc and coauthor on the paper, told The Verge. “That’s what’s impressive about the material.”

The Brazilian monkeys do not use the stone flakes they inadvertently produced, the researchers reported, whereas many early human archaeological sites that contain stone flake tools also harbor evidence of their use to cut animal flesh or plant matter.

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Avatar of: JonRichfield


Posts: 139

October 26, 2016

We have to bear in mind constantly that the evidence we rely on from early-period archaeology and palaeontology, has a great poverty of redundancy and perspective. This is not to decry such disciplines; one makes what one can of such information as is available, and it is no good snivelling about the fact that it is insufficient or that the pre-hominins were such lousy archivists, but at the same time we are left with a responsibility beyond most of us: that of remaining aware of our fiducial limits when we select the strongest working hypotheses on the basis of our observations.

Even when we make sound observations and draw defensible conclusions from a glimpse of a given time and region we must remember that whole civilisations have vanished without much sign of having affected the main lines of history. For us to assume that the likes of the capuchin flakes or the Antikythera device were turning points in the development of civilisation, would be to place too heavy a burden on our foundation sources.

As a (strictly modern) biologist I repeatedly encounter analogous difficulties in drawing conclusions from good-quality photographic records, and am drawn to reflect bitterly on how much one routinely relies unthinkingly on the redundancy of real-life observation.

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