The Technologies of Apes and Monkeys

10.07.2018 |

Episode #1 of the course Technologies that transformed humanity by Richard L. Currier, PhD


For a long time, scientists believed that our prehistoric ancestors made tools and weapons only after they had developed large brains and freed their hands and arms from the task of walking and running. But new evidence suggests that the invention of technologies actually came first, and it was the use of these technologies that stimulated the human body and human society to evolve into their unique forms.

NOTE: The word “technology” means not only the complex technologies of modern times. Throughout this course, we will use the word “technology” in its broadest sense: “the deliberate modification of any natural object or substance with forethought to achieve a specific end or to serve a specific purpose.”

My name is Richard L. Currier. I’m the author of the bestselling book, UNBOUND: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink. In this course, we will journey back millions of years to show how the invention of spears and digging sticks by prehistoric apes triggered the evolution of apes into humans. As we proceed, we will show how the invention of other key technologies in later ages transformed humanity step by step, ultimately making humans the most powerful and dangerous species ever to walk the earth.


Like Humans, Wild Chimpanzees Also Make and Use Tools

One rainy October morning in 1960, primatologist Jane Goodall was wet and exhausted, having spent hours searching through the rain-soaked valleys of Tanganyika, hoping to observe a group of wild chimpanzees. Suddenly, she saw a movement in the grass. A male chimpanzee was sitting next to a termite nest, inserting a long grass stem into the entrance. After a moment, he would withdraw the stem, lick off the termites, and eat them. The chimp feasted on the termites for over an hour and then wandered away.


Wild chimpanzees have learned to prepare a stick to fish termites out of their nests.


Before Goodall’s research, scientists believed that only humans made and used tools. But by 1973, Jane Goodall had recorded 13 different types of chimpanzee tools, and since then, more than 25 distinct types of tools have been identified by primatologists studying chimpanzees in the wild.

In addition to probes for termite fishing, chimpanzees also select and prepare small sticks for gathering honey, extracting nuts from their shells, and removing the marrow from the bones of their prey. Large, flat leaves are used as mats for sitting on wet ground and as disposable “hats” when it rains. Smaller leaves are chewed into a soggy mass and used as a “sponge” for collecting water and cleaning wounds. One group of chimps even uses a pounding pestle to enlarge holes in trees in search of tasty grubs.


Chimpanzees Also Fashion “Weapons”

When attacking others, chimps will gather fruit, sticks, and even stones to throw at their adversaries. When threatening their enemies, male chimps will break off branches and brandish them wildly about as they dash screaming through the forest.

A chimpanzee group in West Africa has been observed making and using actual weapons. Selecting a suitable tree branch, they strip off the leaves and twigs, sharpen one end with their teeth, and use these “spears” to kill bush babies, a primitive primate that sleeps in hollow trees.


How Technologies Are Passed Down through the Generations

Some particularly inventive chimpanzees in Guinea, West Africa, have learned to open hard-shelled kola and panda nuts using two stones as a “hammer and anvil,” a technique that has been passed down within this group from one generation to the next. Another chimpanzee group has developed a “high five” greeting, raising their arms and clasping each other’s hands when they meet.

Such “cultural traditions” are not limited to chimpanzees. A group of wild Japanese monkeys learned to wash potatoes in the sea in the 1950s and have taught this technique to their offspring ever since.

None of these behaviors are found among all the members of a particular species, but rather only among certain groups living in specific locales. This shows that these behaviors are passed down through the generations by learning, not inheritance. Similar animal “cultures” have been observed in the wild among whales, elephants, birds, and even rodents.

In tomorrow’s lesson, you will learn how the invention of spears and digging sticks by prehistoric apes led to the disappearance of our ancestors’ sharp canine teeth—their only biological weapons—and to the unique human behavior of walking and running on two legs.


Recommended reading

Tool Use in Wild Chimpanzees: New Light from Dark Forests

Tool Use and Tool Making in Wild Chimpanzees

Savanna Chimpanzees, Pan Troglodytes Verus, Hunt with Tools


Recommended book

In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall


Share with friends