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Archaeology

The Chimp Stone Age Is Happening Right Now

What separates us from the animals? It's not self-awareness; even some birds have that. It's not empathy; dogs seem to have that too. It's also not the ability to use tools: archaeologists say that chimpanzees have been using stone tools for generations.

A typical stone hammer used by chimpanzees in the Tai forest to crack nuts.

Move Over, Human Tools

Decades ago, it was commonly believed that humans were the only animals that used tools. We now know that this ability is surprisingly common: elephants and crows use tools, as do some fish. And of course, primates do too—though until recently the only tools scientists had witnessed them using were plant-based, like twigs and sticks.

In the early 2000s, so-called "primate archaologists" published a landmark study that described a 4,300-year-old site rich in stone tools—stone tools the researchers were sure didn't come from humans. That could mean chimpanzees are currently living in their own Stone Age, and it could pre-date the arrival of human farming villages in the same region of the site.

How Do We Know?

What's the difference between a chimpanzee tool and a primitive human tool? Researchers have noted that chimps have a unique way of using stone tools. Whereas humans might prefer an easy-to-handle rock that weighs 1 kg (2 lbs) or less, chimps like their equipment big and heavy, weighing as much as 9 kg (20 lbs). Archaeologists can also tell who used the tools by the residue left on them. If a tool is covered in leftovers of a food humans don't eat but chimps do, chances are the tool didn't come from human hands. Sorry humans—maybe our distinguishing feature will just have to be our love of reality television.

Chimpanzees' Sophisticated Use Of Tools

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Chimps are careful about selecting which stones to use to crack open nuts. 00:22

  2. Young chimpanzees often observe and mimic adults as they crack open nuts with rocks. 00:59

  3. Like humans, chimps are either right- or left-handed. 02:30

Dive Deeper Into Evolution

If this article sparked your curiosity about evolution we encourage you to check out Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Bill Gates highly recommends it and Amazon ratings gives it 4.6 stars.

"When Melinda and I went on our spring vacation, I encouraged her to pack a copy of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I had just finished the book and I was dying to talk to her about it. It's so provocative and raises so many questions about human history that I knew it would spark great conversations around the dinner table. It didn't disappoint. In fact, in the weeks since we've been back from our holiday, we still talk about Sapiens."

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