Post by Anna-Sophie Springer
In Peter Høeg’s fantastical novel The Woman and the Ape (1996), an advanced simian civilization has infiltrated human civilization. Albeit more hairy than humans, their intelligence and character have allowed these beings to blend in undiscovered, often working in high political and social roles to make positive changes for their own, anthropogenically endangered ecosystem far away. The book (which often verges on the sentimental and didactic and is built around an interspecies love affair), portrays these apes as a kind of anthropoid future civilization, for the apes turns out to be more ethically advanced and altruistically developed than humanity.
In the “real” world, so-called Primate Archaeologists dedicate their research on studying the material traces of primate intelligence. They traverse the tropical forests searching for tools and other evidence of monkey sleights of hand.
I have mentioned apes’ dexterity in one of my earlier posts, but now would especially like to point you to this new reportage on primate evolution by Colin Barras published on the BBC website. The central scientific thesis reads “Chimpanzees and monkeys have entered the Stone Age.” This is not only interesting because we customarily associate the Stone Age with the deep time of human evolution, suggesting that non-human anthropoid species are catching up to us. But also because many of the great ape tools scientists gather in the forests are not even made of stone, but rather of wood or other plant substances: This might have to do with the circumstance that stones are not easily available to species spending much of their life in and around trees. “Plants are ubiquitous in primate habitats but stones are not,” says Michael Haslan from the University of Oxford’s Primate Archaeology project Primarch, who is quoted in the report.
So, while orangutans, bonobos, and gorillas are only employing tools from organic materials, some other species including the macaques I’ve mentioned in the earlier post as well as chimpanzees—indeed our closest genetic cousins—have been observed to use stone tools for things such as opening nuts. According to the studies references in the article, however, only a small number of west African chimp communities have adopted this behaviour, but they might have been already been doing this for several thousand years back.
Similarly to the invention of agriculture occurring simultaneously in different parts of the world around 10,000 years ago, Haslan believes that also “the Stone Age primates are so widely scattered across the evolutionary tree that they must have each come up with the technology independently. We have multiple inventions of the same behaviour.”
Speaking of same or similar behaviour—and connecting back to the questions of care raised by Peter Høeg’s story—I have also for some time been meaning to share this video of a group of elderly lab chimps that are released into a North American forest reserve where they are said to see the sky and feel grass for the first time in their lives—as well as apparently being able to touch each other.
All images: Stills from King Kong, USA 1933 (directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack)