Primate archaeology sheds light on human origins



Source: EurekaAlert

A University of Calgary archaeologist who is one of the few researchers in the world studying the material culture of human beings' closest living relatives – the great apes – is joining his colleagues in creating a new discipline devoted to the history of tool use in all primate species in order to better understand human evolution.

Julio Mercader, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Tropical Archaeology in the U of C's Department of Archaeology, is the only Canadian author of a new paper titled "Primate archaeology" published this week in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. Mercader is one of 18 co-authors from universities including Cambridge, Rutgers, Kyoto University and schools in Spain, Italy and France. They argue that recent discoveries of tool use by a wide variety of wild primates and archaeological evidence of chimpanzees using stone tools for thousands of years is forcing experts to re-think the traditional dividing lines between humans and other primate species as well as the belief that tool use is the exclusive domain of the genus Homo. The researchers advocate for a new inter-disciplinary field of primate archaeology to examine tool use by primates in a long-term, evolutionary context. The paper is the result of the international symposium "Palaeoanthropology meets Primatology" held on Oct. 18, 2008 at Cambridge.

"There is a need for systematic collaboration between diverse research programs to understand the broader questions in human evolution and primatology," Mercader says. "For example, few archaeologists have seen a wild primate use a tool, while few primatologists have taken part in archaeological excavations," he explains.

Mercader was the lead author of a team that laid the foundations of the emerging discipline of chimpanzee archaeology in two previously-published papers in Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). He is the archaeologist who uncovered the first prehistoric evidence of chimpanzee technology in 2007 — a 4,300-year-old nut-cracking site in the rainforests of Côte D'Ivoire, West Africa that provides proof of a long-standing chimpanzee "stone age" that likely emerged independently of influence from humans.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-07/uoc-pas0...

One of the United States' top Syro-Palestinian archaeologists, Bill Dever, has been calling for increased interdisciplinary cooperation for several years.
His book What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel makes an excellent case for a newer approach.

http://www.amazon.com/What-Biblical-Writers-Know-When/d...

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Comment by Malena on July 16, 2009 at 6:25pm
The genus Homo used to be defined by toolmaking, but with so many animals using tools, now it has a morphological definition. The problem is that Homo habilis, formely the first species of Homo, now has to be kick out of the genera, because it looks more Australopithecus than Homo.
The curious thing most Homo caracteristics are related to the neck, because with habitual bipedalism the head needs to have a better support. Australopithecus weren´t habitual bipeds, they spend a huge part of their time in trees.
Brown-Capuchin.jpg
This is a Capuchin Monkey, who I like to call our pararell primates. Except for being small and platyrrhines, they are so like us, that just blows up my head.
Comment by Chrys Stevenson on July 16, 2009 at 6:03pm
Although not involving primates, my favourite example of 'tool use' is a story about crows in Japan.

"On a university campus in Japan. Carrion crows and humans line up patiently, waiting for the traffic to halt. When the lights change, the birds hop in front of the cars and place walnuts, which they picked from the adjoining trees, on the road. After the lights turn green again, the birds fly away and vehicles drive over the nuts, cracking them open. Finally, when it’s time to cross again, the crows join the pedestrians and pick up their meal.


If the cars miss the nuts, the birds sometimes hop back and put them somewhere else on the road. Or they sit on electricity wires and drop them in front of vehicles.

Biologists already knew the corvid family–it includes crows, ravens, rooks, magpies and jackdaws–to be among the smartest of all birds. But this remarkable piece of behavior–it features in the final program of “Life of Birds”–would seem to be a particularly acute demonstration of bird intelligence.

The crows in Japan have only been cracking nuts this way since about 1990. They have since been seen doing it in California. Researchers believe they probably noticed cars driving over nuts fallen from a walnut tree overhanging a road. The crows already knew about dropping clams from a height on the seashore to break them open, but found this did not work for walnuts because of their soft green outer shell."

In another instance:

"On the Pacific island of New Caledonia, the crows demonstrate a tool-making, and tool using, capability comparable to Palaeolithic man’s. Dr Gavin Hunt, a New Zealand biologist, spent three years observing the birds. He found that they used two different forms of hooked “tool” to pull grubs from deep within tree trunks."


Other birds and some primates have been seen to use objects to forage. But what is unusual here is that the crows also make their own tools. Using their beaks as scissors and snippers, they fashion hooks from twigs, and make barbed, serrated rakes or combs from stiff leathery leaves. And they don’t throw the tools away after one use–they carry them from one foraging place to another."

Source: "The Life of Birds" by Gareth Huw Davies

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