Saturday, June 20, 2009

Honey-Loving Chimps Handy, Too

Life for human evolution researchers was so much simpler 50 years ago. There seemed to be a clear distinction between the cognitive capacities of humans and that of all other animals. The proof: Humans made tools, other species did not. The concept was perhaps best expressed in the title of a 1949 book by British anthropologist Kenneth Oakley, Man the Tool-Maker. As late as the early 1960s, most researchers agreed with famed fossil hunter Louis Leakey that toolmaking was a uniquely human activity.

But with more and more scientific observations of primates, identifying “uniquely human” behavior has been getting harder and harder. A paper in the June Journal of Human Evolution now extends animals’ reach even further toward human abilities, reporting that wild chimpanzees can sequentially craft a set of tools for a single task. Primatologist Christophe Boesch and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, conclude that researchers might have to rethink their whole approach to the cognitive divide between humans and their primate cousins.

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