Chimps using tools: Archaeology’s most fascinating discovery of 2007
A team of researchers led by Dr. Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary in Alberta undertook excavations in the West African nation, Côte d’Ivoire. They encountered a series of hammer stones, some of them dating back 4,300 years, that are thought to have been used by chimps to crack open nuts. Starch residue from several nuts known to be staples in the chimpanzee diet, but not the human diet, suggests that chimps, rather than humans, manufactured these tools.
Dr. Mercader was the first to coin the term “chimpanzee archaeology.” His discoveries have resulted in the opening of a new research niche within archeology bearing the same name.
Discoveries like these have prompted humans to add the qualifier “complex” in front of the word “tool.” It is an elegant, yet necessary, way to acknowledge that non-human beings (in this case, chimps are also capable of manufacturing tools, but that until further notice, it is only us humans who use, say, e-mail.
The announcement also showcases how science works: its practitioners are by nature curious creatures. Someone somewhere will inevitably come up with new questions that they will investigate to yield further insights into human behavior. In this case, such insight was achieved by researching non-human primate tool making. For this step forward, we owe Dr. Mercader and his colleagues a debt of gratitude.