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Study of Chimpanzee Tool Use Debunks “Chimps in Stone Age” Theory

Study of Chimpanzee Tool Use Debunks “Chimps in Stone Age” Theory


You’ve probably heard some hip podcaster like Joe Rogan, or watched that National Geographic YouTube video, about a chimpanzee spear-fishing. Rogan, along with an alarming number of scientists, claim things like “Chimps are now in the Stone Age.” However, the idea that chimpanzee tool use is on a par with that of Stone Age humans seems to have been snuffed.

These kinds of headlines give way to the idea that in the future our hairy primate cousins may evolve into having businesses, cars and maybe even their own cell phone. Now, refreshingly, a new study clearly demonstrates that “chimpanzees have not entered the Stone Age.” Furthermore, they are far from it.

Although many have reported witnessing chimpanzee tool use on a level of Stone Age humans, chimps do not actually have this level of ability inately. (Kajenna / Adobe Stock)

Paper On Chimpanzee Tool Use Overrides All Others

In 2007 National Geographic announced that “for the first time, great apes had been observed making and using toolsto hunt mammals.” The article explained that no fewer than 22 scientific papers in the 1990s and early 2000s had documented observations of wild chimpanzees on an African savanna snapping sticks into so-called “spears.” 

Their aim was reportedly to use the sticks like weapons, jabbing them into hollows in tree trunks in order to hunt and stab bush babies, a type of small primate. According to the  National Geographic report, this reportedly “offers insight into the evolution of hunting behavior in early humans.” The  number of these papers is now closer to a hundred, and they all suggest apes are advancing on an evolutionary path similar to humans. 

But the new research paper published on Open Research Europe claims to prove them all wrong, demonstrating that 99% of ape scientists, (and Joe Rogan) should drop their “chimps in the Stone Age” fantasy. 

The STONECULT project is led by Dr. Claudio Tennie and the new study has been conducted by Dr. Elisa Bandini and Dr. Alba Motes-Rodrigo of the University of Tübingen and Dr. Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Published in the ERC-journal, the paper suggests that chimpanzee tool use is nowhere near the abilities of early Stone Age humans.

While chimps do use tools, they can’t make stone tools. (rai / Adobe Stock)

Where Did So Many Scientists Go Wrong?

The new, and somewhat controversial, conclusions were drawn after a study of eleven chimpanzees at a zoo in Kristiansand, Norway, and Chimfunshi Wildlife Sanctuary and Orphanage in Zambia. Chimpanzees “do not seem to be able to spontaneously make and use sharp stone tools,” says the new paper, which directly conflicts with the hundreds of other similar studies which suggest the very opposite. Furthermore, this lack of ability and inspiration to make sharp tools was observed even when chimps had all the materials and incentive at hand.

The research team asked a very clear question: do chimpanzees possess the spontaneous ability to make stone tools, like humans did 2.6 million years ago? Alba Motes-Rodrigo pointed out that all previous experiments had focused on “great apes that had been enculturated or trained by humans and had been shown manufacturing techniques by humans.” Therefore, the primary reason the new experiments show the opposite from earlier studies is because it analyzed the behaviors of untrained (unenculturated) chimpanzees. 

The obsession science has with the chimpanzee is rooted in the fact that this ape is our closest living relative. In the image Hugo Reinhold’s 1893 “Ape with Skull”. (Darwin Monkey / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Study Conducts Experiments On Chimpanzee Tool Use 

The observed chimps were shown two different sealed containers of food through a clear Plexiglas pane, but they could only access the meal if they made sharp stone tools. Even with a stone core and hammer stones to knock sharp-edged stones off this core shoved under their noses, there was no evidence the chimpanzees could make the tools they needed to solve the problem.  Nothing. They would have starved. Unlike all previous studies, this experiment shows that wild chimpanzees who have not observed humans making tools in their lifetime are unable to make tools on a par with Stone Age humans. 

Accepting chimpanzees are not in a period of evolution equable with the human Stone Age, how close might they be? Claudio Tennie explained that although the chimpanzees likely understood that the containers contained food, they were clearly unmotivated to get to it. “None of the animals in the test even attempted to make sharp stone tools.” 

“Chimpanzees do not have this spontaneous ability” to make tools, claims the study. This suggests “all” previous studies on chimpanzee tool use have been contaminated, in that the test subjects, the chimps, have all been in close contact with humans before being studied. Tennie reiterated, "they have not entered the stone age.”

Top image: Study on chimpanzee tool use concludes that chimpanzees use a variety of tools, but sharp stone tools are not one of them. Source: Kevin Langergraber

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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