Primates May Have Entered the Stone Age: Bonobos Create Pre-Agricultural Tools Like Pre-Humans

First Posted: Dec 01, 2015 10:27 AM EST

Bonobos may have entered the Stone Age. For the first time ever, scientists have seen bonobos making sophisticated use of pre-agricultural tools in a way that's similar to what archaic pre-humans once did.

Bonobos are actually considered less sophisticated than their chimpanzee siblings. This is largely due to the fact that chimps have been seen in nature using branches to dig for tubers in the ground. They also use branches to break into termite nests and beehives, and break nuts using a hammer and anvil. By contrast, bonobos are known as a social species that engages in extensive sexual behavior, but had not been seen in nature using tools.

In this latest study, the researchers gave a group of eight bonobos living in conditions of full captivity and a group of seven bonobos living in a sanctuary with culturally-rich conditions with forest access similar natural challenges. Both groups were required to reach food either buried deep in the ground, covered by stones of varying sizes, hidden inside large ungulate bones, or concealed inside small concrete capsules. The researchers presented the groups with natural raw materials, such as green tree branches of varying sizes and deer antlers.

Within a few days, the bonobos at the sanctuary prepared and used task-appropriate tools in order to reach the food. For example, they used stones and antlers as hammers to break ungulate bones or concrete capsules. The bonobos in full captivity took about a month to reach this point.

What's truly interesting is that one female bonobo from the full captivity group created "spears" with particularly long sticks. Each time the researcher approached, she used the spear to try and attack him through the bars.

"In the caves of these hominins in South America, horn cores and bones have been found with wear-pattern markings showing that they were used as digging tools," said Itai Roffman, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Moreover, breakage patterns on long bones found in caves in Europe inhabited by Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon were identical to the way the bonobo Pan-Banisha broke her long bone. The bonobos essentially showed that once they have their motivation to do so, they have analogous capabilities to those of archaic pre-humans, which is logical as chimpanzees and bonobos are our genetic sister species."

The findings are published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

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