In yet another example that Planet of the Apes may have been a documentary rather than fiction, a group of chimpanzees who had never seen it done before figured out how to use tools to dig up buried food. Which will be taking our ditch-digging jobs first – robots or chimps? What about fence builders? Farmers? Isn’t it enough that they're trying to evolve past us? Is this a sign they'll bury us in the process? Is this the real reason why Musk and Bezos want to leave the planet?
“This study aimed to explore ecological and anthropogenic factors influencing chimpanzee relative abundance across this highly degraded and human-impacted landscape.”
Ah-ha! It’s already starting! The stated purpose of this new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, is to learn more about that fateful moment in human evolution when the negative effects of climate change (you knew it was going to ultimately be about climate change) forced early humans to give up on finding low-hanging fruit and easy-to-pick vegetables and figure out a way to dig up edible roots, prehistoric potatoes and other tubers without ruining their fingernails, fingers, wrists and shoulders – in other words, when humans first learned how to use tools.
Dr. Hernandez-Aguilar from the University of Oslo led Alba Motes-Rodrigo of the Tübingen’s Institute of Prehistory and Medieval Archaeology and her colleagues in an experiment at Norway’s Kristiansand Zoo using ten chimpanzees of which eight had been born in captivity and none had ever seen another chimp using tools or indicated any inclination to use rocks or sticks for digging. To simulate the effects of climate change, the researchers buried food in an enclosed area. They then left sticks and big pieces of bark around, vacated the premises and let the chimps loose. What happened next was surprising, if not a little Planet of the Apes-ishly shocking.
“The chimpanzees spontaneously used the sticks to excavate, and performed several different behaviors like digging, shoveling, perforating and enlarging. The chimpanzees were selective in their choice of tools, preferring longer tools for excavation. They also obtained their own tools – mainly from naturally occurring vegetation – and brought them to the excavation site.”
According to the press release, not only did these chimps – who had never seen tool usage before -- dig out the food, they spent time shaping the holes. When the sticks and bark weren’t sufficient, they made their own tools. To give them more of a challenge, the researchers then took the tools away and buried more food.
“In this case, the chimpanzees preferred to use their hands more often and for longer periods than tools when digging.”
Ha, you say … this proves humans are smarter, since we’ve figured out how to make shovels when there’s no sticks or bark handy. That’s true, but the team points out that the selection of tools and varied usage shows that chimps are able to work their way through complex challenges. This is the first observation of such behavior and the researchers would like to find some wild chimps doing the same thing. It’s also an extremely limited study. On the other hand, it’s the only way we have to figure out how early humans might have started using primitive tools because of climate change without having access to a time machine.
Let’s just hope we don’t have to find out all over again. We already know chimps won't be helpful when they're in charge.