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This Bonobo Handyman Makes His Own Stone Tools
August 21, 2012
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Kanzi, a male bonobo who lives at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, is demonstrating a skill with making and using stone tools that the New Scientist calls "on par with the efforts of early humans."

In an experiment, scientists sealed food inside a log to mimic marrow locked inside long bones and then put the logs into Kanzi's enclosure. Unlike one of his companion bonobos, who managed to get the food out only by smashing the log, Kanzi used tools and spent a long time working on extracting the food.

Back in the 1990s, Kanzi was taught to shape flint into basic tools, and he used those tools and a variety of other objects to tackle the log problem. He inserted sticks into seams in the log, threw projectiles at it, and used stone flints as choppers, drills and scrapers. His companion bonobo managed to get food out of two logs. Kanzi opened up 24. Check out video of the bonobo in action:

The tools Kanzi built resemble those made by early hominids - distant genetic relatives of modern human beings. But there are questions about whether Kanzi's skills could extend to all bonobos: since he was raised in captivity and taught tool-making by humans, it's possible that these skills would not have come about in a natural environment.

Kanzi has always been a little exceptional, though: when he went to early "language lessons" with his adoptive mother Matata, he seemed to be uninterested in learning. But then one day, when Matata was away, Kanzi started competently using the language tools that Matata was working with.

He is known as the first ape to have learned aspects of language naturalistically rather than through direct training, and according to his teacher, American psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who has worked with him for years, Kanzi even understands words and commands that aren't part of his taught vocabulary.

Kanzi with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Savage-Rumbaugh tells the story of an outing in the forest when Kanzi touched the symbols for marshmallow and fire. When he was given matches and marshmallows, he snapped twigs for a fire, lit them with the matches and toasted the marshmallows on a stick.

Kanzi toasts a marshmallow

The Great Ape Trust where he lives calls Kanzi "the world's undisputed ape-language superstar."

And for a thought-provoking discussion of the evolutionary ties between humans and our simian ancestors - at what point, and why, did an ape "decide" to stand up and start fashioning tools, eventually leading to mankind? - check out this article, 'Planet of the Apes', from the Financial Times. It's a review of three recent books about evolutionary theory.

But of course, evolutionary theory aside, we all know how this ends: apes on horseback, with rifles. Watch out.

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