Tool use in non-human creatures

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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

The BBC’s science pages have been reporting the discovery that chimpanzees in the Nimba Mountains (Guinea) use cleavers to chop their food into smaller, bite-sized chunks. The discovery was made when Kathelijne Koops, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, was undertaking fieldwork for her thesis. Together with her supervisor, Professor William McGrew, and Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa of the University of Kyoto, she has published a preliminary account of her discovery in the journal Primates with an alacrity that shames the average archaeologist.

A chimpanzee using a hammer stone and anvil to open betel nuts

A chimpanzee using a hammer stone and anvil to open betel nuts

It was as long ago as 1960 that Jane Goodall first showed that chimpanzees use tools in their food gathering strategies. In recent years, Professor McGrew’s work has shown that chimpanzee tool use is determined by cultural considerations: groups in different parts of Africa have quite different tools. This distinguishes them from other tool using animals except humans.

So why should we be surprised at this? Chimpanzees (both Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee, and Pan paniscus, the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee) are our closest living relatives, with geneticists estimating that our two lines diverged around six million years ago (although the fossil evidence suggests that it may have been as long ago as eleven million years). Archaeological evidence points to tool use by human ancestors at least two and a half million years ago, at a level then that was more developed than chimpanzee tool use, which probably implies that there was a long period before that of unattested tool use, using wood and bone objects that have not survived (back in the 1920s, the South African anthropologist Raymond Dart suggested that we should call this culture osteodentokeratic, after the hypothesised use of bone, tooth and wood).

For far too long, we have defined humanity through its use of tools (witness Kenneth Oakley’s popular book Man the Toolmaker). Of course we use them, but we are constantly discovering more and more species that also use tools. In their book, The Material Life of Human Beings (1999), Mike Schiffer and Andrea Miller argued that it is humans’ relationship with material culture that makes us different from all other animals. We don’t just make and use tools, only to discard them once they’ve performed their functions: we depend on them, we treasure them, we use them as a means of communication. A Porsche says certain things about its owner; a Morris Minor says something different. Our entire lives are lived among the material culture we create and use.