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Great apes can make and use tools, Israeli study shows

Haifa University researchers discovers that the endangered bonobo, a close relative of the chimpanzee, uses rocks and sticks, like prehistoric man

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A Bonobo ape. (Jeroen Kransen/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)
A Bonobo ape. (Jeroen Kransen/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The bonobo, an endangered great ape and close relative of the chimpanzee, is capable of creating using and tools, an Israeli researcher has found.

Though individual apes in captivity have been known to use rudimentary tools in the past, University of Haifa researcher Itai Roffman found that the ability is more prevalent than previously believed.

Roffman, a research fellow at the university’s International Graduate Center of Evolution, and other researchers began studying the apes in an effort to better understand how ancient humans developed into tool-users.

“The bonobos’ foraging techniques resembled some of those attributed to Oldowan hominins, implying that they can serve as referential models.” Roffman’s team wrote in American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Oldowan is an archaeological term for the oldest known use of tools in Paleolithic humans, from approximately 2.6 to 1.7 million years ago.

“Antlers, short sticks, long sticks and rocks were effectively used as mattocks, daggers, levers and shovels, respectively,” Roffman said.

“One bonobo successively struck a long bone with an angular hammer stone, completely bisecting it longitudinally. Another bonobo modified long branches into spears and used them as attack weapons and barriers,” his team said.

A previous study of Bonobos found just one male ape, Kanzi — which had lived for many years in captivity and knew sign language — that was able to manipulate tools.

The new study found that Kanzi was not as special as previously believed — of 15 animals studied, six made use of tools.

The team studied the apes at both a German zoo and a US sanctuary for the endangered animals. Studying only apes in captivity, some researcher said, could skew the results.

According to the environmental organization WWF, wild bonobos can only be found in forests south of the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bonobos in the wild have much less time to experiment with tools than those in captivity, Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France told the New Scientist website.

The researchers involved in the study, however, see the discovery as scientifically important in understanding man’s ability to use tools.

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