The New Archaeology of Primates

Posted by ap507 at Jul 21, 2016 09:50 AM |
Dr Huw Barton discusses how both Capuchins and Chimpanzees are showing evidence of using tools, problem solving and more, lifting the lid on a new field of archaeology
The New Archaeology of Primates

Source: Wikipedia; Wild Capuchin monkey (Cebus capucinus), on a tree near a river bank in the jungles of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Taken by Storkk

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In 2009, archaeologist Michael Haslam and colleagues, outlined a thesis to explore an entirely new realm of archaeology; the archaeology of primates (Haslam et al. 2009).

“Non-human primates display stone and plant-material selection, processing and accumulation behaviours that challenge the conventional view of hominins as the sole creators of archaeological sites.” (Haslam et al. 2009)

In a paper recently published in Current Biology (Haslam et al. 2016), Haslam and his team has moved beyond this initial thesis to show that the behaviour of Capuchin monkeys has created their own archaeological sites in Serra da Capivara National Park, Brazil. They have recovered deposits of Capuchin nut-cracking tools that date back at least 600-700 years ago. This is only the fourth primate archaeological site that we know of. The first three were discovered by Julio Mercader and a team working in Côte d’Ivoire in 2001 and 2003. Those sites provided evidence of Chimpanzee nut cracking technology dating back to almost 4,300 years ago (Mercader et al. 2009). Before Haslam’s recent study and the excavations in the West African rainforest, archaeology, the study of the human past through material remains, was entirely, the study of the human past – now we have to extend our definition of archaeology to include our closest living cousins.

In 2007 I was fortunate to be asked to contribute to the multi-disciplinary study that investigated the function of Chimpanzee nut-cracking tools from the lowland rainforest of Taï National Park, Côte d’Ivoire (Mercader et al. 2007). The study was a collaboration between archaeologist Julio Mercader, University of Calgary, and primatologist, Christophe Boesch, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. What I, and other participants didn’t know at the time, was that the nut-cracking and pounding tools we were asked to analyse were from excavations at three rainforest sites with dates ranging from 200 years old to 4,300 years old associated with the activities of Chimpanzees. Julio Mercader conducted a rigorous series of blind tests on the identification of the stone tools and on the organic residues extracted from them, which included starch granules used to identify the species of nuts preserved on tool surfaces, to ensure there was no bias from the analysts. No one had ever attempted a study of this kind before, nor made the claim that chimpanzees have their own archaeology; he knew it would likely be contentious stuff.

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 site 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 (Seed and Byrne 2010). Capuchin monkeys use stones they collect to crack cashew nuts and do so dexterously and with forethought. Field observations have shown that Capuchins carefully select tools of the right density, disregarding lighter stones of similar sizes, that they know, from experience, will do the right job (Visalbirghi et al. 2009). The excavation of these Capuchin sites, demonstrate that this is behaviour with temporal depth, implying the transmission of learned knowledge down the generations of Capuchins in this location. The study in Africa has similar implications.

The work of Haslam and his team is lifting the lid on a whole new discourse on archaeology and on the history of humanity. 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. Haslam thinks that with this study they are just at the tip of the iceberg of what is to come next. I think he might be right.

Amanda Seed and Richard Byrne. 2010. Animal Tool Use. Current Biology 20: R1032-R1039.


Elisabetta Visalbirghi, Elsa Addessi, Valentina Truppa, Noemi Spagnoletti, Eduado Ottoni, Patricia Izar, Dorothy Fragaszy. 2009. Selection of effective stone tools by wild bearded Capuchin monkeys. Current Biology 19: 213-217.

Julio Mercader, Huw Barton, Jason Gillespie, Jack Harris, Steven Kuhn, Robert Tyler, and Christophe Boesch. 2007. 4,300-Year-old chimpanzee sites and the origins of percussive stone technology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 3043–3048.

Michael Haslam, Adriana Hernandez-Aguilar, Victoria Ling, Susana Carvalho, Ignacio de la Torre, April DeStefano, Andrew Du, Bruce Hardy, Jack Harris, Linda Marchant, Tetsuro Matsuzawa, William McGrew, Julio Mercader, Rafael Mora, Michael Petraglia, He ´le `ne Roche, Elisabetta Visalberghi and Rebecca Warren. 2009. Primate archaeology. Nature 460: 339-344.

Michael Haslam, Lydia V. Luncz, Richard A. Staff, Fiona Bradshaw, Eduardo B. Ottoni, and Tiago Falótic. 2016. Pre-Columbian monkey tools. Current Biology 26: R515-R522.

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