The Stone Age ended a few thousand years ago. For humans, that is.
For chimpanzees and monkeys, it’s still going on — and it has been going on for much longer than humans long believed.
Archeologists have discovered that some chimps, as well as some capuchin and macaque monkeys, have been using crude stone tools for thousands of years. This recent discovery, the BBC reports, has led to “a brand new field of science: primate archaeology.”
The discovery that these animals have used stones as tools for so long — primarily to crack open nuts and dig for tubers — is significant, researchers say. Chimpanzees were first observed using stone tools in the 19th century. Offers the BBC report:
“The tools are crude. A chimpanzee or monkey stone hammer is hardly a work of art to rival the beauty of an ancient human hand axe. But that’s not the point. These primates have developed a culture that makes routine use of a stone-based technology. That means they have entered the Stone Age.”
The reason more chimpanzees and monkeys don’t use stone tools isn’t because they haven’t all made the evolutionary leap. It’s probably because large stones aren’t readily available in their natural habitat, and so the skill set is not widely passed down from generation to generation.
Germany’s Max Planck Institute, after conducting extensive field work in West Africa, wrote in 2007 that “chimpanzees and human ancestors shared for thousands of years several cultural attributes once thought exclusive of humanity, including transport of raw materials across the landscape; selection and curation of raw materials for a specific type of work and projected usage; habitual reoccupation of sites where garbage and debris accumulate; and the use of locally available resources.”
Eric March cheekily wrote on Upworthy that this could portend great things ahead for chimps and monkeys, pointing out that humans during the Stone Age learned to control fire, domesticate dogs and make pottery.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Humans’ large brains allowed them to begin using stones as tools and then to create more sophisticated ones during our Stone Age, which began millions of years ago. Chimps and monkeys obviously don’t have the same mental capacity. That said, they likely are not at the apex of their abilities.
One thing that might be holding back chimpanzees, macaques and capuchins, however, is human development.
“We are shrinking their populations dramatically through habitat destruction and hunting,” Oxford University archeologist Michael Haslam told the BBC. “Smaller populations cannot spread and sustain complex technologies as well as larger groups.”