“Whose Tools Are These?”

Capuchin Monkey
That is the title of an article in the January 2017 issue of Scientific American (pages 11-12) by Kate Wong. The article deals with the discovery that wild capuchin monkeys in Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park have been observed banging rocks together to break them and thus isolating conchoidal fractured chips and flakes which could then be used as cutting tools. When researchers study the flakes and chips, they find that they look very much like the flakes and chips found in caves and shelters where early humans are thought to have lived. However, part of the reason that humans were assumed to have been in those locations was the finding of tools similar to the capuchin monkey flakes.

There are some interesting points connected with all of this. One obvious point is that you cannot define what is human and what is not human by whether they fashioned tools or not, and that has been a method used by scientists studying this question. We have known that some birds and chimps use objects found in the wild to secure food. Chimps use sticks to get ants by pushing the sticks into an ant hill and eating the ants that cling to the sticks. Birds have been observed dropping objects on eggs to crack them open to eat the contents. Making a tool is another issue, but once again this does not seem to be a good indicator of whether or not a specimen was human.

The Bible describes humans as being created in God’s image. This doesn’t involve tool use at all but has to do with human capacity for creative activity, worship, and feeling guilt, sympathy, or self-sacrificing love. That definition is superior to any physical criteria, but it is hard to use in studying a fossil in most cases. –John N. Clayton © 2017