Tool Time

A team of archaeologists claims in this week's PNAS to have found the oldest evidence of ape technology. Sorry we couldn't include a picture, but here's a hint: it looks like a rock.

I'll set aside for a moment the increasing problem of journals hyping almost every new paper as either the oldest or most definitive evidence (remember when it was about the science?). I'll also set aside the already unfolding debate whether the tools were made by the apes or ancient hominids.  Because, as I reported recently for Science News, whether or not apes were using tools 4,300 years ago seems less relevant than understanding how the ape mind conceives of a tool. Carel van Schaik makes a compelling case that apes transmit knowledge through culture; he's found that ape "technology" is more advanced in groups that are particularly social. And with bonobos like Kanzi practically speaking, does it really matter if an ape figured out how to smash a nut on his own? That's like congratulating Shakespeare for properly stapling a stack of papers.

As skeptics like Daniel Povinelli at the Cognitive Evolution Group might say: we know chimps can use tools, but what do they think about while they're using them? Can they differentiate colors from shapes? Can they truly conceptualize the future or the past? And, if so, could they remember back far enough to categorize a new discovery as the oldest evidence? Because we can clearly do that.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.