It was just a week ago that we learned chimpanzees in Gabon, West Africa, were observed chewing on insects and making a paste which they placed on the wounds of another chimp – a clear display empathetic and doctor-like caring for a non-related member of the same species. This happened more than once, so researchers believe this could be an evolutionary step for our closest animal relatives. But … is it a step closer to “Planet of the Apes”? Before you answer, let’s hear about some orangutans who are not only using tools but very close to making their own stone tools.
“The production and use of sharp stone tools significantly widened the ecological niche of our ancestors, allowing them to exploit novel food resources. However, despite their importance, it is still unclear how these early lithic technologies emerged and which behaviours served as stepping-stones for the development of systematic lithic production in our lineage.”
A study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE describes two recent experiments involving orangutans and tools. The first took place at the Kristiansand Zoo in Norway. As explained in a press release, two captive male orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) with no previous training or exposure to tools were given a concrete hammer, a prepared stone core, and two baited puzzle boxes. To get the food out of the box, they had to cut a rope or a silicon skin around the box. Initially, both great apes jut banged the hammer on the walls and floor. They were then given pre-made sharp flint flakes, which one orangutan picked up, cut the silicon skin around a box and removed the treat – demonstrating for the first time that an untrained, unenculturated orangutan could figure out how to use a stone cutting tool.
Is this a prequel to Planet of the Apes?
While that was impressive, the researchers were down because neither ape made its own flint by hitting the stone core. They knew they needed to see more, so they moved to Twycross Zoo in Little Orton, Leicestershire, England, which has three female orangutans. This time, the researchers showed the orangutans how to make sharp flints by hammering the core, then using the flint to open a box. By only observing, one female picked up a hammer, hit the core and knocked off a flint flake.
Is THIS a prequel to Planet of the Apes?
Putting the two results together, would putting the smart female and the smart male together with a hammer, stone core and treat-in-a-box end up with one of them performing the entire task alone … or both of them working together to do it and splitting the treat? All the researchers would say is that "Our study is the first to report that untrained orangutans can spontaneously use sharp stones as cutting tools” and that they know how to beat on rocks with hammers – an action that can result in making sharp stone pieces. The real question is whether they would continue the processes if allowed, eventually figure out the next step and pass it on to others. Obviously, more research is needed.
If they’re looking for a different experiment, why not have the chimpanzee doctors show the orangutan toolmakers how to make and apply the chewed insect medicine to hammered thumbs and flint cuts?
Now THAT would be a Planet of the Apes prequel!