Monkeys shake up archeology by manipulating pebbles

Chimpanzees who nuts with stones in West Africa, capuchins who smash stones in Brazil, macaques who hammer crustaceans to extract the substantial marrow in Thailand or who also produce shards evoking carved stones … It was inevitable. By dint of observing cultures in small and large monkeys that they define as behavioral innovations transmitted between generations, primatologists could only wonder about the origin of these. And build bridges with their fellow archaeologists, experienced in the study of ancient artefacts.

A chimpanzee carries Coula edulis nuts, which he will  with the stone he is carrying, in the Taï national park (Côte d'Ivoire), in February 2009.

Thus was born, a little over twenty years ago, a new scientific theme, the “archeology of non-human primates”, at the border of several disciplines that it contributes to irrigate. by bringing them new ideas and playgrounds. But also by asking questions about the interpretation of certain archaeological sites. This is again the case in an article published on March 10 in Science Advances describing how Thai macaques accidentally produce splinters by ing nuts “almost indistinguishable” oldest having been produced intentionally by our ancestors.

Primatologist Christophe Boesch (Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig) is one of the pioneers of this transdisciplinary approach. For decades, he has studied the chimpanzees of the Taï forest, in Côte d’Ivoire, and in particular the way in which they transmit the use of stone tools to different nuts, “including those of panda, the hardest”. He highlighted the cultural dimension of these practices by noting in particular that the chimpanzees to the east of a river crossing this forest do not use these stone tools, whereas the lithic material is just as available there as in the west. “The river traces like a cultural border”notes the primatologist.

“I then tried to see if it was possible to find ancient pebbles in this humid forest, to determine if chimpanzees used the same techniques in the past”, he says. In the early 2000s, he contacted the prehistorian Julio Mercader (University of Calgary) with a view to an archaeological dig in the Taï forest. “It was complicated the first year, because the radar supposed to detect stones in the ground sent back false signals and when we dug, we came across pockets of water”, he remembers.

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