Tool-Making Bonobos Give Glimpse of Human Origins

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Kanzi the Bonobo Chimp
Image Source: National Geographic/VInce Musi

 Human Origins
Bonobo chimpanzees raised in captivity now seems capable of making stone tools on a par with the efforts of early humans. The tools hint at untapped cognitive reserves in humanity’s close relatives, who perhaps should be seen less as great apes than early humans. 
Kanzi the bonobo chimpanzee continues to impress. Not content with learning sign language or making up "words" for things like banana or juice, he now seems capable of making stone tools on a par with the efforts of early humans.

“They are not only our genetic sister species, but are also such in terms of behavior, culture, adaptation and survival strategies, which were previously thought unique to early Homo,” said anthropologist Itai Roffman of Israel’s Haifa University.

Eviatar Nevo of the University of Haifa in Israel and his colleagues sealed food inside a log to mimic marrow locked inside long bones, and watched Kanzi, a 30-year-old male bonobo chimpanzee, try to get it out. While a companion bonobo attempted the problem a handful of times, and succeeded only by smashing the log on the ground, Kanzi took a longer and arguably more sophisticated approach.

A bonobo named Kanzi makes sophisticated stone tools. According to anthropologists, the tools resemble those used by our ancestors.
Image Source: Elizabeth Rubert-Pugh/Great Ape Trust/Bonobo Hope Sanctuary
Both have been taught for you to knap flint flakes in the 1990s, holding the stone core in a hand in addition to using another to be a hammer. Kanzi used the various tools he designed to come at the log in a number of ways: inserting twigs into seams inside the log, hurling projectiles at it, in addition to employing stone flints since choppers, drills, and scrapers. Kanzi got food from 24 firelogs, while the companion managed just a couple.

One of the most remarkable things about the tools Kanzi created is their resemblance to early hominid tools. Both bonobos made and used tools to obtain food – either by extracting it from logs or by digging it out of the ground. But only Kanzi's met the criteria for both tool groups made by early Homo: wedges and choppers, and scrapers and drills.

The findings will fuel the ongoing debate over whether stone tools mark the beginning of modern human culture, or predate our Homo genus. They appear to suggest the latter – though critics will point out that Kanzi and his companion were taught how to make the tools. Whether the behaviour could arise in nature is unclear.

Kanzi also knows how to make a fire, but this too was taught to him by his human handlers.


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