Sep 02 2012

Clever chimps

Published by Editor at 10:23 am under Press Releases, University News

chimp-creating-tools-aug-2012Two bonobo-chimpanzees have for the first time shown a sophisticated ability to produce and use stone tools like prehistoric man did 2.6 million years ago. This was found in a new study from the University of Haifa, Israel, conducted in collaboration with US researchers and published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). “This is the first time that we are able to observe beings other than humans reaching such a high level of technology,” says Itai Roffman of the University of Haifa, who conducted the research as part of his doctoral thesis.

Various cultivated skills demonstrated by chimpanzees living in nature are known to scientists, such as hunting down small monkeys with sharp sticks, breaking nuts with a stone hammer and anvil, and digging with wooden tools to reach food and water. Now, Roffman, who is an evolutionary-anthropologist, set out to examine whether chimpanzees are able to exhibit characteristics similar to those of prehistoric humans.

The study was supervised by Prof. Eviatar Nevo and Prof. Avraham Ronen of the University of Haifa. For the study, the researchers worked with two well-known bonobo-chimps, Kanzi and Pan-Banisha, who have been raised in captivity and who have learned to communicate with people through a language of computerized symbols and in English, reaching a level of three- and four-word sentences. In 1991 they were taught by Toth and colleagues to produce and use stone tools, with which they cut ropes or pieces of leather in order to open a container of food. Now Roffman and colleagues expanded and complemented those studies with respect to the tool forms manufactured and their targeted uses. The current study approached the chimpanzees with new challenges, simulating conditions in a natural environment that would require survival strategies similar to those that our human ancestors developed.

For the experiment, some food was placed in a small container and hidden in a crevice within a wooden stump (which was cut longitudinally into two halves and glued together after the food was inserted), and other food was buried in stony ground. The two were left to find ways to access the food, and various stones, antlers, and broken branches were scattered in the field around them.

Unguided in their task, the bonobos first chose to create flint tools. They struck two stones together in their hands and created two types of tools appropriate for the task. Kanzi demonstrated impressive abilities in producing “heavy work” tools and separate “light work” tools. “These two types of flint tools parallel the two types used by early humans. Attempting to break open the log that contained food, Kanzi first threw it against stones, and then began working with the different tools, using them correctly to pry open the glued slit: he chose his small sharp-edged flake to scrape the log’s surface and then chopped through the slit with a thick cortical flake,” notes Roffman. The researchers saw that the chimpanzees also chose the appropriate tools to get at the buried food. They used their hands to dig through soft earth, sticks to dig through mud, and their stone tools to pry through harder ground.

In these experiments, Kanzi and Pan-Banisha demonstrated high levels of technological ability, parallel to those of early humans. Roffman compared the marks left by Kanzi’s tools on the wooden log with marks found on fossil bones dating back 2.6 million years, which were pried by prehistoric man to get to bone marrow, and observed that these marks are practically identical. Man’s ability to use stone tools for various purposes was the most important cognitive breakthrough in his technological development. The current findings indicate that this ability was probably present already in the last common ancestor of early humans and chimpanzees. “Our findings are likely to shed more light on the evolutionary development of man,” Roffman adds. “I assume that if they remain on this track, the bonobo-chimpanzee family growing up with humans will demonstrate impressive cognitive development in the future.”

Click here to see video footage.

Over the coming months, Roffman and colleagues are planning to set up a group to study chimpanzees in northwest Africa, in a semi-arid habitat similar to that of the African Rift, where species of prehistoric man were discovered. In this region, with its sparse resources, chimpanzees may have evolved adaptations and survival strategies to find water, food, and shelter. The current study of Kanzi and Pan-Banisha supports the hypothesis that the potential for developed strategies, and it is likely therefore that the potential is being realized in the more extreme conditions of the African region. “It will be very interesting to study these chimpanzees, that have been living for many generations alongside local human tribes and may have imitated the evolutionary pathway humans underwent in their transition from the rain forest to the stressful savanna,” Roffman concludes.

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