August 24 – Getting Stoned

Today’s factismal: Chimpanzees have been stuck in the Stone Age for about 4,300 years.

It is no surprise to anyone today that animals use tools. Elephants use stepstools to get fruit. Fish crack clamshells on coral to get mussels. Birds drop turtles on stones to crack the shells open and kill playwrights. And gorillas use twigs and sticks to nab termites. But what is a surprise is that some animals may be further along the path of tool-making that we thought.

A family of chimpanzees using tools(My camera)

A family of chimpanzees using tools
(My camera)

Most animals’ tools are impromptu (like the fish and the coral) and relatively primitive (like the gorilla and the twigs). Very few show any indication of forethought and planning. The good thing about this sort of tool is that they can be very easy to find. The bad thing is that they don’t make very good tools because they wear out quickly and aren’t properly shaped. The solution to the problem is to use something that is easy to find, relatively durable, and can be shaped; the solution is to use stone. Humans made that discovery about 3,300,000 years ago in Lomekwi, Kenya. There humans started hitting one rock with another to form new tools (called knapping). Since this was a new art to them, they weren’t very good at it; it would take 700,000 years of practice before the hominins in the Olduvai Gorge came up with the idea of using steady pressure instead of a hard blow to create a sharper edge. Fast-forward to today and those simple stone tools have given way to integrated circuits and spaceships.

A chimpanzee grabbing a light snack of ants(My camera)

A chimpanzee grabbing a light snack of ants
(My camera)

Most chimpanzees live in East Africa, where the jungle is dense and the ground is rich and loamy; as a result, there aren’t many stones to be found. But a sub-group of chimpanzees lives in West Africa where the ground is rich in stones. And that group has been observed making and using stone tools. Interestingly, when archeologists explored a layer of soil that was about 4,300 years old, they found tools there that matched the ones that the chimpanzees were using today. The best explanation for that is chimpanzees are currently in their Stone Age.

A chimpanzee teaching her young how to make stone tools (Image courtesy Etsuko Nogami)

A chimpanzee teaching her young how to make stone tools
(Image courtesy Etsuko Nogami)

If you’d like to learn more about chimpanzees and maybe even see them using a few tools, why not join Chimp & See? This citizen science project is looking for people like you to watch their films and help them identify tool-using behaviors. To learn more, swing on over to:

One thought on “August 24 – Getting Stoned

  1. Pingback: September 14 – Sounds Like | Little facts about science

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