While the Bobby Fuller Four and later The Clash “Fought the Law” which later led to “breaking rocks in the hot sun,” a new study published yesterday suggests that might not be unique to humans and that monkeys in Brazil have been observed doing the same.

Monkeys
Photo by Meli1670 (Pixabay)

Give a monkey a rock, and they just might make tools that were deemed the realm of early humans

Palaeoanthropologists like the lead author of the study, Toms Proffitt of Oxford University are being forced into a major rethink about monkeys that are apparently making tools without, quite possibly, knowing what the hell they are doing. The monkeys in question are bearded capuchin monkeys in Brazil and beg the question of where early Stone Age artifacts came from.

“It does raise interesting questions about the level of cognitive complexity — how intelligent a hominin has to be to produce what we thought was a sophisticated technology,” Profitt said in an interview accompanying the publication of the study.

“It’s an incredibly interesting behavior,” he added. “Another species is making sharp, conchoidally fractured flakes, an artifact that we only ever thought is unique to hominins.”

Shaped stone tools make by “flaking” one rock sharp by hitting it against another to produce a cutting edge and safe handle date to about three million years ago in finds made in Africa.

While we’ve known for some time that elephants, crows and a fair number of primate species have been seen using tools, they don’t use tools for as many purposes as the bearded capuchin moneys of the Serra da Capivara National Park in Brazil where they have been observed using their “knives” for digging, smashing and even in displays of sexuality and dominance and what amazed the researchers is they made the tools largely on purpose.

“As soon as I saw this material, it was pretty clear that it was something quite special that needed to be examined,” said Proffitt of the quartzite flakes that were sent to him by observers for his analysis.

Regarding a technique of making flakes, this is a very similar technique to what has been hypothesized was the technique to make the very earliest archaeological flakes,” Dr. Proffitt told the Christian Science Monitor in an email interview following the publication of his study in the journal Nature.

For all their perceived ingenuity in producing the stone tools, they seem less interested in actually using them and observers witnessed the monkeys seemingly more interested in licking the dust they produced in the “manufacturing process.”

Hélène Roche of France’s National Center for Scientific Research explained this is in a commentary that accompanied the study.

“Previous evolutionary explanations for the origins of hominin intentional stone modifications have focused on hominin-specific advances, such as changes in hand shape, coordination, and cognitive skills,” wrote Roche “Explaining the origins of intentional stone modifications by early hominins in light of Proffitt and colleagues’ interpretation of their results would therefore require alternative hypotheses.”

Essentially, Roch says this doesn’t automatically mean scientists might need to rethink understanding early humans.

“Our knowledge about technical behaviors and stone knapping in early-human archaeological sites has a solid foundation,” she wrote. “It represents decades of continuous research on the African continent that has provided hundreds of lithic assemblages, dated from as early as 3.3 million years ago and retrieved from sites that have a firmly established geological context.”