Jul 11, 2018 I Brett Tingley

Monkeys in South America Have Entered the Stone Age

Ah, the little critters of nature. They don’t know that they’re ugly. Well, not yet. Given recent developments in the primate world, though, they might soon catch on given another several million years. While humankind possesses certain physiological traits which differentiate us from the rest of the animal kingdom, many recent discoveries suggest some of our animal cousins might be more intelligent than we realize. Case in point: a groundbreaking new study claims that a species of diminutive primate in Panama has joined our human ancestors by entering the Stone Age. How long will it be until they’re putting human astronauts in cages?

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Or seducing Charlton Heston?

Probably quite a long time. I still wouldn’t let my guard down around those wily little beasts, though. The ability to create and use stone tools is regarded as one of the milestones of human evolution and for the most part separates us from other primates and animals - with a few exceptions. Scientists with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama had heard anecdotes and rumors about monkeys in the rainforests using stone tools, but had been unable to produce conclusive evidence of this ability.

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Next up: the Plastic Age.

Now, a population of white-faced capuchins has been definitively documented using stone tools as crude hammers to smash open nuts, shellfish, coconuts, and other foods. A pre-print study of the behavior has been published in the open source journal bioRxiv. According to the study of these monkeys, the behavior is mostly confined to males, and was seen in over 80% of the days in which the monkeys were spotted. The footage is pretty impressive, even if it is just a monkey smashing nuts with a rock. 

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Think you're so smart? When's the last time you had to smash something to get a meal?

Curiously, though, the behavior was only seen among one particular population of capuchins along a one-mile stretch of shoreline on Panama’s Jicaron Island. It remains unknown why only this group of monkeys has learned this adaptation and why others on the island have not.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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