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First primate archaeological dig uncovers new tool development links

A study of chimpanzees use of hammers to open nuts in western Africa may provide fresh clues to how tools developed among human ancestors.

A paper published in the May 24 issue of the journal Science documents the first archaeological examination of a non-human primate workplace and establishes new links between the use of tools by chimpanzees and similar developments among human ancestors (hominids). The research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The research site is in the Tai Forest, about 375 miles west of the capital of the Ivory Coast, Abidjan.

A team from George Washington University (GWU) and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology of Leipzig, Germany (which provided the primary funding for the work) studied a site where chimpanzees had carried in stone hammers from nearby areas to open nuts on tree roots, which they used as anvils. The researchers last fall, recovered 479 stone pieces, chips of granite, laterite, feldspar and quartz broken from the hammers.

Some of the stone by-products of the chimpanzee nut cracking are similar to what we see among the technologically simplest Oldowan [hominid] sites in East Africa, said rainforest archaeologist Julio Mercader of GWU, the lead author of the journal article, titled Excavation of a Chimpanzee Stone Tool Site in the African Rainforest.

Other scholars have documented similarities between the hammers used by chimpanzees to open nuts and those used by hominids, but no researchers have used the techniques of human archaeology on non-human primate sites, Mercader said.

The researchers have proved archaeology to be a feasible method of uncovering past chimpanzee sites and activity areas in rainforest environments. This introduces the possibility of tracing the development of at least one aspect of ape culture through time, said Mercader, a visiting assistant professor at GWU.

Melissa Panger, a GWU post-doctoral research
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Contact: Bill Harms
wharms@nsf.gov
703-292-8070
National Science Foundation
23-May-2002


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