Chimp Nut-Cracking Site Offers Clues to Early Tool Use

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"Julio's study is very exciting. Now we can compare the earliest human archaeological sites with archaeological sites from our closest relatives," Jeanne Sept, an archaeologist at Indiana University, in Bloomington, said. "Before this discovery we were only able to compare early human sites with other human sites—it was a little like looking in the mirror and it didn't tell us very much."

The earliest known sites of stone-tool use were discovered because they held collections of "deliberately flaked stones" which were recognizable as early tools, Sept said. This study provides a model to look for ancient sites that preceded the stage where humans were deliberately sculpting their tools.

"Mercader's research presents new challenges," Sept said. "Debris that may not have been noticed before, because the rocks were not deliberately flaked and sharpened, may now demand more attention."

Taï Forest is an oasis of virgin tropical forest in West Africa and was declared a world heritage site in 1982. The forest is home to many threatened mammals such as the pygmy hippopotamus and 11 species of monkeys. The forest has also been the site of much primate research over the last two decades.

Christophe Boeshe, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology of Leipzig, Germany, and the third co-author of the paper, has been studying chimp behavior and chimp tool use in the Taï National Park for more than 20 years.

Since it can take up to ten years for chimps to become habituated to people, Boesch's long relationship with the apes was invaluable, Mercader said. He made it possible to carry on the archaeology without disturbing the chimps, which continued their nut cracking activities at other Panda trees.

Chimps are well known for their use of tools, be it sticks and leaves for retrieving ants from holes, or rocks for cracking nuts. But this is the first time that non-degradable evidence has been found regarding these activities.

"Many scientists have a preconception that nothing is preserved in rain forests and archaeology in these areas is not worthwhile," Mercader said. "Our work proves that this is not true and that discoveries relevant to human history can come from places we do not expect."

Mercader's study was primarily funded by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. The George Washington University, National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation provided additional funding.

This story will be airing May 23 on National Geographic Today.

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