Planet of the apes: monkeys and chimpanzees have created their own archaeological sites dating back hundreds of years

Posted by ap507 at Jul 22, 2016 11:25 AM |
Dr Huw Barton from the University of Leicester examines how recent research into primates has opened up an entirely new realm of archaeology

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 22 July 2016

  • Primate archaeology shows how monkeys have evolved to use tools, plan ahead and transport materials
  • Academic discusses recent research into primate archaeological sites in Brazil and Côte d’Ivoire
  • Capuchins and Chimpanzees show evidence of transporting raw material to locations up to 200 metres away for future use
  • Sites could lift the lid on new realms of archaeology and help celebrate the ties that bind us to our nearest relatives

Capuchin monkeys have created their own archaeological sites in Brazil, complete with nut-cracking tools that date back at least 600-700 years ago, according to recent research (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(16)30541-3.pdf) – and Dr Huw Barton from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History has suggested these findings could help to lift the lid on an entirely new realm of archaeological research.

The sites in Serra da Capivara National Park, Brazil are one of four primate archaeological sites known of, with others discovered in Côte d’Ivoire in Africa in the early 2000s providing evidence of Chimpanzee nut-cracking technology dating back to almost 4,300 years ago.

In an article written for Think: Leicester (https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/think-leicester/science-and-environment/2016/the-new-archaeology-of-primates), the University’s platform for independent academic opinion, Dr Barton has outlined how, based on these recent findings, we now have to extend our definition of archaeology to look beyond the remnants left behind by humans and to examine the material remains left behind by our closest living cousins as well.

In the article Dr Barton describes the 2007 study he was involved in that investigated the function of Chimpanzee nut-cracking tools from the lowland rainforest of Taï National Park in Côte d’Ivoire. The study, surprisingly, found that Chimpanzees have their own archaeology, using nut-cracking and pounding tools from up to 4,300 years ago.

Dr Barton said: “These recent primate archaeological studies are forcing us to rethink our definitions of what it means to be human. The earliest evidence of hominin - the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors - tool use dates back to 3.3 million years ago, and the best known and earliest archaeological sites occur in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, dated to >2 million years ago. These sites consist of piles of stones and smashed animal bone.

“Stones at these sites have been used as tools in a percussive fashion (like the Chimpanzee and Capuchin archaeological sites) and also flaked to create sharp cutting edges (this behaviour has never been observed in modern primates living outside captivity).

“The deliberate transport and accumulation of stones and tools to favoured places in the landscape has long been argued as an important juncture in human evolution; showing evidence of tool use, problem solving, planning depth, and the manipulation of materials to access plant and animal resources. In fact, this pattern of behaviour has usually been cited as the preserve of humanity, the real beginnings of the genus Homo.

“Both Capuchins and Chimpanzees now show this same evidence of planning ahead, transporting raw material, such as stones in a river bed to locations in the landscape where they know they will be needed for future use: up to 200 meters in some examples.”

Capuchin monkeys, for example, have been observed to use stones they collect to crack cashew nuts and do so both dexterously and with forethought.

In field observations, Dr Barton explains, Capuchins have carefully selected tools of the right density, disregarding lighter stones of similar sizes, that they know, from experience, will do the right job.

He added: “This new study shows us that once again, science has pushed too hard to separate us from the rest of the biological families of which we are all a part. We like to think that we are so special, that our journey is the only one that really matters. This work tells us that we need to step back and think again. We need to reassess our place in the world and celebrate the ties that bind us to our nearest relatives and to the rest of the animal kingdom.”

ENDS

Notes to editors:

For more information contact Dr Huw Barton on hjb15@le.ac.uk

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