While many species of birds and mammals have been seen using tools in the wild, crafting lasting tools from stone is one of the things that has long been thought to mark a key difference between apes and early humans. One species of great ape, though — the bonobo — may have just made that line a little less reliable. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that, once offered a little insight on the matter, bonobos are at least as skilled at crafting tools as chimpanzees, and may demonstrate the same level of talent shown in artifacts left behind by early humans.
Unlike their cousins, the chimpanzees, bonobo monkeys aren’t known for making tools in the wild, where they are too busy making sweet bonobo love to worry about such trivial matters as flint knapping and stone craft. Put them in captivity, though, and offer them a tutorial on how to hone rocks into useful instruments like knives, and they pick the techniques up pretty quickly. More than that, they will practice what they’ve been shown and improve on it.
In the 90s, researchers taught a pair of captive bonobos how to make simple knives and use the tools to cut ropes and leather straps that allowed them to open food containers. Observing the pair — Kanzi and Pan-Banisha — years later found that they had been perfecting their craft over the years. When researchers decided to put their skills to the test, the two bonobos didn’t disappoint, using their handmade stone tools as everything from scrapers to shovels, to primitive drills to crack open logs and dig through hard soil for food rewards.
Perhaps most impressive was the degree to which the tools the bonobos made resembled human artifacts from the dawn of mankind — right down to the similar marks they left on wood. The apes also used a variety of tools in conjunction when opening the containers, suggesting a deeper than suspected understanding of how the tools they’re bringing to bear really work. Which is intriguing news for primate researchers and archaeologists, uplifting news for apes everywhere, and unnerving news for anyone who is uncomfortable with the idea of apes that are too smart for their own good.
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