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Bonobos Create Sophisticated Stone Tools and Spears Like Chimpanzees and Early Humans, Researchers Say

Dec 01, 2015 02:57 PM EST
Bonobo Tool Making
For the first time, bonobos have been observed making stone tools and weapons out of tree branches. This suggests the social animals are more resourceful than previously thought.
(Photo : Itay Roffman)

While it is no surprise that our ancient ancestors were able to make and use sophisticated tools from the limited resources available, scientists have documented for the first time that bonobos – whose share 98.5 percent of their DNA with humans – are able to do the same.

In a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Haifa, bonobos were observed making pre-agriculture gadgets similar to the way hominins and other members of the Homo genus did many, many years ago. Among other innovative creations, researchers also found the animals making spears to defend themselves, according to the university's news release.    

"I believe that the current study will break down our cultural hang-up as humans concerning the inherent capabilities and potential of bonobos and chimpanzees," Itai Roffman, one of the study researchers from the Institute of Evolution at the University of Haifa and recent recipient of the Adams Fellowship from the Israel National Academy of Sciences and Humanities, said in the release.

Bonobos are native to Africa and closely related to chimpanzees - even sometimes referred to as the dwarf or pygmy chimpanzee - although, they are often considered less sophisticated than their close chimpanzee siblings who have been seen using branches as spears for hunting and breaking nuts open with a hammer. 

Three years ago Roffman proved two bonobo siblings named Kanzi and Pan-banisha were able to create and use a range of early human-like stone tools in order to acquire food out of reach in natural contexts. Then he set out to explore whether other bonobos living in a sanctuary and zoo were able to do the same.

In his recent study, Roffman observed a group of eight bonobos living at the Wuppertal zoo in Germany, and another group of seven from the Bonobo Hope sanctuary in Iowa so that he could compare a population living in complete captivity to ones in a more natural setting.

Both groups of bonobos were subjected to a series of natural challenges, where they were to reach food that was hidden, buried or concealed in small concrete capsules. Testing the degree to which the animals would go in the extractive foraging tasks revealed they were more resourceful than previously thought.

Natural raw materials including stones, branches and deer antlers were scattered throughout the test area, and within a few days the sanctuary bonobos began creating complex task-appropriate tools using the available resources.

For example, the animals devised a plan to excavate buried food using "tool-sets." Bonobos removed overlaying stones using their hands, or sticks and antlers as a rake, and then they manipulated the branches into daggers – or shovels – to dig deeper into the ground before finally reaching the food. Then the levered it out using a longer branch. While the zoo bonobos were able to manage similar extraction techniques, it took them about a month to reach the same developmental point. The quality of their performance was far below that of the sanctuary bonobos.  

This is the first evidence to suggest that animals outside the Homo genus can employ pre-agriculture tools, such as those used by Paranthropus, an extinct genus of hominins that emerged between one and two million years ago and survived in savannah environments with limited resources.

"In the caves of these hominins [Paranthropus] in South America, horn cores and bones have been found with wear-pattern markings showing that they were used as digging tools," Roffman added in the university's 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 the 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 study was recently published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

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