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Report: chimps used simple tools 5 million years ago

Scientists will keep studying modern chimpanzees to compare their behavior with ancient chimps.
Scientists will keep studying modern chimpanzees to compare their behavior with ancient chimps.  

By Peter Dykstra
CNN Sci-Tech

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An archaeological dig in West Africa has revealed evidence that chimpanzees used primitive tools as long as five million years ago, according to an international team of scientists.

The evidence is in the form of 479 fragments of rudimentary stone hammers that the chimps used to crack open nuts at the close of what is known as the Miocene era, when Ice Age conditions cooled the planet, according to their report in this week's journal Science.

The fragments -- found at a site in Tai National Park in the Ivory Coast -- closely resemble similar tools used by hominid (pre-human) species about the same time, offering opportunities to learn more about the history of human tools as well as providing a rare look into how other primate species developed, the researchers said.

"This introduces the possibility of tracing the development of at least one aspect of ape culture through time," said Julio Mercader, an archaeologist at the George Washington University In Washington, D.C.

Mercader and GWU colleagues conducted the investigation with researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The ancient chimps, similar to their modern-day counterparts, used sharp stone pieces to open nuts -- an important supplement to their diet of fruit, leaves, and insects. The chimps apparently placed the nuts on a tree root, using it as an "anvil" for the stone hammers.

Concentrations of stone-tool fragments were found around ancient tree roots.

The scientists said they will keep observating the habits of modern chimps in Tai National Park -- including their use of stone tools -- for evidence of change in chimp behavior since the five million-year-old stone tools were used. The study represents a rare departure for archaeologists, whose work almost always focuses on humans and their immediate ancestors.

An unfortunate footnote to the research is that the modern chimps in Tai National Park are among the last in the nation of Ivory Coast. Victimized by deforestation, hunting and a serious 1995 outbreak of the ebola virus, only 750 chimps are thought to remain in the nation.


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