No one wants to live in the dystopian worlds depicted in science fiction movies, but some appear to be inevitable … and possibly sooner than we think. One of those is the ‘Planet of the Apes’ -- a world in which apes have evolved to catch up with and perhaps surpass humans in some ways … enough so that they clash for control of what we eventually find out is (spoiler alert for the last person who hasn’t seen it) Earth. Primatologists have recently been claiming that chimpanzees are learning how to make and use stone tool – putting them in an ape equivalent of our own Stone Age. However, new research suggests this never happened – and perhaps never will. Can we breath a sigh of relief and move ‘Planet of the Apes’ back to the ‘fiction’ and ‘comedy’ sections?
“One of the first types of tools found in the archaeological record are sharp-edged stones. How tool-using hominins learnt to make and use these tools is still debated. One way to study how hominins might have learnt to make and use stone tools is to test our closest living relatives, chimpanzees. In this study, we aimed to elicit stone tool making and use by providing 11 untrained chimpanzees (most of whom were mother-reared) housed at two different institutions with baited puzzle boxes that could only be opened with a sharp tool.”
That sounds like a simple test. According to the report published in the journal Open Research Europe, the STONECULT project sought to validate or disprove papers and article dating back to the 1990s stating that great apes had been observed making and using tools to hunt prey – specifically, tree branches sharpened into spears. The project was led by Dr. Claudio Tennie from the Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology at the University of Tübingen in Germany. In addition to researchers in Germany and other countries, the team included eleven chimpanzees at a zoo in Norway and a wildlife sanctuary in Zambia who had little or no contact with humans, especially no opportunities to watch humans making tools or doing things similar to making tools. See what they’re implying?
“Although the chimpanzees were motivated and interested in accessing the puzzle boxes, none of the subjects in this study spontaneously made or used sharp stones. Our findings suggest that without extensive human training and/or demonstrations, chimpanzees cannot learn how to make or use sharp stone tools by themselves.”
The end result of this experiment was no stone tools and 11 frustrated and hungry chimpanzees. Without training from humans, they’ll never learn to make them either. Does this sounds like a good reason to turn off the TVs in zoos and ape sanctuaries --- especially those that can pick up home improvement channels?
“These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the ability to make and use sharp stone tools may have developed in our own lineage after the split from our last common ancestor with chimpanzees, approximately seven million years ago.”
The researchers conclude that tool-making is an inherently human skill. In other words, ‘Planet of the Apes’ will only happen if we teach the great apes human skills. That won’t happen because we’re already too busy teaching robots and AI human skills.