Tag Archives: tools

Nut hammer.

Orangutans don’t use tools instinctively — they actually think about what they’re doing

Sadly, we may never get to know the full extent of their abilities.

Nut hammer.

Image credits Benjamin Balazs.

It’s always impressive to see animals using tools. But one type of tool use — called ‘flexible’ — is by far the one that impresses us most. Flexible tool use is indicative of higher mental processes, such as the ability to plan certain actions and consider their outcomes. An international research effort looked into tool related decision-making in orangutans and reports that the apes put thought into how they implement tools rather than relying on instinct.

When you put your mind to it

“Our study shows that orangutans can simultaneously consider multi-dimensional task components in order to maximize their gains and it is very likely that we haven´t even reached the full extent of their information processing capabilities,” said co-author Josep Call from the University of St Andrews.

Orangutans are one of our closest relatives, sharing 97% of our DNA. They’re highly intelligent, exhibiting long-term memory, routine use of complex tools in the wild, and sophisticated nest-building behaviors.

This intelligence helps them navigate their natural environments with gusto. Orangutans have to juggle multiple factors simultaneously to make ends meet, such as remembering the best time to find ripe fruits, the distance to and availability of food resources at various times of the year, and the availability of tools to maximize these resources.

To get a better idea of how the apes handle tool use and how many different factors they can consider at a time in order to maximize reward, researchers from the University of Vienna, the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and the University of St Andrews put orangutans at the Wolfgang Koehler Primate Research Center in Leipzig to the test.

The team used two types of food: banana pellets, which are the orangutans’ favorite snack, and apple pieces — which they like, but will disregard in favor of the pellets. The food was placed in two different apparatuses: one requiring a probing stick to operate, while the other required dropping a ball inside to reach the snack. During the trial, orangutans were pitted against either one or both of these devices and given a choice between two items — usually a tool and a food item. Once one item was picked, the other was immediately removed from the trial area.

Testing devices.

The ball-apparatus (left) and stick apparatus (right) used in the study.
Image credits Isabelle Laumer et al., (2019), PLOS ONE.

Orangutans showed great flexibility in adapting to different scenarios, says lead researcher Isabelle Laumer. If one food item was out of immediate reach, and the animals had to pick between the appropriate tool or a readily-available banana pellet, they always chose the pellet, she explains.

“However, when the orangutans could choose between the apple-piece and a tool they chose the tool but only if it worked for the available apparatus: For example when the stick and the likeable food was available but the apes faced the ball-apparatus baited with the favourite banana-pellet, they chose the apple-piece over the non-functional tool. When the stick-apparatus with the banana-pellet inside was available they chose the stick-tool over the immediate apple-piece”, she adds.

The final task required the orangutans to deal with two of the apparatuses, one baited with a banana pellet and the other with an apple piece. The apes were supplied with the appropriate tools to deal with both of the devices. In this case, the orangutans “were still able to make profitable choices” by picking the tool appropriate for the pellet-laden device, the team reports.

It may not seem like very much to us humans with our fancy tools, but it is quite a remarkable find. Most tool-usage we see in the wild is inflexible. A sea otter, for example, will use stones to break up shells, and an archerfish will shoot jets of water to knock insects into a pond where they can reach them. But the otter won’t use a tool to enable it to reach food more easily, and the archerfish won’t use its jets of water to defend itself or for any other task. These animals don’t ‘understand’ their tools as we do — the behavior is instinctually hard-wired and won’t be adapted for a different purpose. It’s done automatically.

What the team found in this study is that orangutans will overcome immediate impulses — grabbing the available food — if they can get a better reward in the future, even if this means using novel tools in novel ways. Needless to say, this betrays a certain cognitive sophistication on their part. The team ties their results to previous findings in Goffin cockatoos, which have shown similar (but more limited) abilities.

“The birds were confronted with the choice between a tool to retrieve an out-of-reach food item and an immediate reward. We found that they, similar to the apes, were highly sensible to the quality of the immediate relative to the out-of-reach reward at the same time as to whether the available tool would actually work with the task at hand”, explains Alice Auersperg, the head of the Goffin Lab in Austria and paper co-author.

“Again, this suggests that similar cognitive abilities can evolve independently in distantly related species. Nevertheless, the cockatoos did reach their limit at the very last task in which both apparatuses baited with both possible food qualities and both tools were available at the same time.”

Still, we may never get the full picture on orangutans’ capabilities. A 2007 survey by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) found that orangutans will become extinct in the wild within two decades if the current rate of deforestation is maintained.

“Habitat loss due to extensive palm-oil production is the major threat,” Laumer explains.

“Unfortunately palm oil is still the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. As long as there is a demand for palm oil and we keep buying products that contain palm oil, more and more of the rain-forest will be destroyed. Each of us can positively impact the survival of these extraordinary animals by making purchase decisions that may appear small, but that can collectively make a huge impact on our planet.”

Tool use in animals is a rare trait, one which we consider a tell-tale sign of intelligence. This is doubly true for intelligent tool use, as the name suggests, since it requires the flexible integration of multiple sources of information and environmental conditions.

Wouldn’t it be a shame to extinguish one of its prime examples for a little cooking oil?

The paper “Orangutans (Pongo abelii) make flexible decisions relative to reward quality and tool functionality in a multi-dimensional tool-use task” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Stone Age people were living on the Himalayan plateau 30,000 years ago

Ancient people conquered the Tibetan plateau, one of the most inhospitable areas in the world, over 30,000 years ago — much earlier than was previously believed.

Excavations at this site on the Tibetan Plateau indicate that people inhabited this high-altitude region between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought. Image credits: Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), Chinese Academy of Sciences

Living in Tibet isn’t easy nowadays — it must have been hellish 300 centuries ago. Yet for some reason, ancient people decided to settle down there, a new archaeological dig has revealed. And by there, I mean 4,600 meters (15,000 feet) above sea level.

“With an average elevation of about 4000 m above sea level and an average annual temperature close to the freezing point of water, and with only half the concentration of oxygen as at sea level, it is not hard to see why it was such a challenge,” researchers write in their study.

Archaeologist Xiaoling Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and her colleagues excavated the archaeological site Nwya Devu, discovering a whopping 3,683 stone artifacts made from local, high-quality rock. The site wasn’t continuously inhabited. Soil layers where the artifacts were discovered suggest three periods of occupation: from about 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, then from roughly 25,000 to 18,000 years ago, and finally from around 13,000 to 4,000 years ago. Zhang suspects that the site may have been a workshop of sorts, where people would carve tools from readily available, sturdy rock.

Stone implements such as these, unearthed around 4,600 meters above sea level in East Asia, help to make a case that Stone Age people lived at high-altitudes. Image credits: IVPP.

In addition to carving tools, the site may have been a good place to seasonally hunt for gazelles and yaks. It may be that these populations didn’t really settle on the plateau, and only spent several months there each year. With their insulating fur and rich meat, yaks would have especially been a prey worthy of the effort.

Those people who inhabited the site may have gotten a bit of genetic assistance from interbreeding with a Neanderthal-like human race called the Denisovans. From this interbreeding, they may have inherited a gene variant for coping with high-altitude oxygen deprivation — a gene that is still carried today by the inhabitants of the Tibetan Plateau.

This is not only the first evidence of humans living on the Tibetan Plateau but also the earliest record worldwide for humans living at high altitude.

The study “The last of Asia conquered by Homo sapiens” has been published in Anthropology.

Experiment proves beyond a doubt that Goffin’s cockatoos deliberately craft and use tools

A new experiment showed that Goffin’s cockatoos can create tools for specific purposes, by cutting out a piece of cardboard to retrieve an out-of-reach nut. Previously, the birds have created tools out of a piece of wood, but there was debate whether this was done intentionally or was just a fortunate accident.

Image credits Brigitte Werner / Pixabay.

For all their unassuming, adorable looks, cockatoos are actually pretty smart. In 2012, a cockatoo named Figaro worked out how to retrieve a nut place tentatively out of his reach by crafting himself a tool, presumably to the sound of scientists’ jaws dropping. The bird figured he could tear a long splinter off a piece of wood, then progressively rake the food until it came into grabbing distance. He then showed the other birds how to do it, and they quickly picked up the practice. This suggests that cockatoos can follow a deliberate process of creating tools with a specific design, for specific purposes.

The experiment was met with heavy criticism, however.

“There were questions on whether the elongated shape of the tool was intentional,” says Dr Alice Auersperg at the University of Vienna in Austria, who described Figaro’s behaviour in 2012. “He could just have bitten the material out of frustration and ended up with a functional tool due to the age lines of the wood.”

The issue was that wood naturally breaks apart along its grain, forming an effective nut-retrieving tool. This made it unclear if the animals set out to knowingly fashion the tool, or they just vented their frustration on the block of wood by biting into it, with the fortunate outcome of creating a tool to get them the object of said frustration. To settle the debate, Auersperg and her team tested the cockatoos’ tool-making skills again. Their experiment used four male cockatoos, including Figaro. Each bird was allotted 10 minutes to create a long, thin tool from a set of materials then use it to retrieve a tasty cashew nut placed out of reach. For the task, they received by turns a leafy twig, a chunk of wood, and a cardboard sheet.

All four animals quickly understood they could remove the leaves off the twig to turn it into an effective nut-retriever. Three of the tested birds previously participated in the 2012 experiments, already knew how to tear the block of wood into spinsters, and did so again.

But both of this materials can easily be fashioned into a long, thin tool. Cardboard on the other hand, doesn’t naturally tear into such shapes. Still, Figaro and one other cockatoo were able to craft a tool from the sheet. Rather than pulling bits of cardboard out at random, they made a deliberate series of perforations in the sheet to create the desired shape. They then broke it off, and retrieved the nut.

Auersperg says the cardboard test makes a strong case that the cockatoos can “see” a useful tool in a piece of raw material, then go about crafting it. This would make them them the second family of birds we know of that are capable of fashioning tools, after the behavior was observed in Hawaiian and New Caledonian crows.

Even more impressive is the fact that this process hasn’t so far been observed in wild cockatoos, suggesting that it’s not an instinct-driven process and the birds spontaneously worked out how to craft tools. Careful study of wild birds might in fact reveal that they’re natural tool-makers — but, at this point, both options remain a possibility.

The full paper “Goffin’s cockatoos make the same tool type from different materials” has been published in the journal Biology Letters.

A capuchin hammering away. Credit: University of Oxford

Monkeys in Brazil make stone flakes, which means some of those ancient tools might falsely be attributed to hominids

A capuchin hammering away. Credit: University of Oxford

A capuchin hammering away. Credit: University of Oxford

Humans and tool use are intrinsic. There’s no way we can imagine life as a human or human ancestor, be it today in our technologically-enabled society or millions of years ago in the wilderness, without tools. Humans aren’t the only tool users in the animal kingdom, however. Ravens, chimps, and monkeys use tools too, scientists will tell you. But while these may seem impressive, hominid tool prowess is unrivaled. Or so we like to think — could we be giving ourselves too much credit?

In the Brazilian forest, a startling find made big waves among anthropologists after a team witnessed with their own eyes how a capuchin monkey turned a plain old stone into a flake — the most basic cutting tool, but one of vital importance. Some of the earliest flakes we’ve found are 3.3 million years old and, naturally, scientists attributed them to human ancestors who lived in those times, like Australopithecus afarensis or Homo habilisIn light of this recent remarkable discovery, however, we can only beg the question: Were all of those tools made by human ancestors? 

Tomos Proffitt, a paleoanthropologist at Oxford University, was there when a capuchin monkey took a rock and bashed it against others. Luckily, Proffitt and colleagues caught it all on tape for the rest of us to see. When they finally descended to the site, they found 111 fragmented stones which the capuchins had dropped. Half of these fractured flakes exhibited conchoidal fracture, a feature commonly associated with hominid flake production.

Capuchin monkeys are pretty clever and you can often see them bash rocks against nuts to crack them open and enjoy their sweet kernel. But this time, the monkeys weren’t cracking nuts — they were cracking stones and in the process produced flakes that, in some respects, rival those found in Africa millions of years ago.

There’s a catch, though. The monkeys didn’t seem to have any idea what to do with the flakes once they made them. The fact that the bashed rocks ended up looking like tools seems to be coincidental. Instead, what the capuchin was after were the minerals from the quartz. These are licked and ingested, the flakes once sucked dry thrown away — or so it seems, anyway.

“While humans are not unique in making this technology, the manner in which they used them is still very different to what the monkeys seem capable of,” said co-author and leader of the Primate Archaeology (Primarch) project Michael Haslam, from the University of Oxford.

Moreover, the ancient tool flakes bear evidence of more intent than what Proffitt and colleagues found in Brazil. Ancient bones which are etched with hundreds of cut marks found in sites alongside flakes also add weight to the idea that, indeed, human ancestors were using such tools with intent millions of years ago. Proffitt, however, cautions that not all of these thousands of flakes collected so far may be made by humans.

“This does not mean that the earliest archaeological material in East Africa was not made by hominins. It does, however, raise interesting questions about the possible ways this stone tool technology developed before the earliest examples in the archaeological record appeared. It also tells us what this stone tool technology might look like. There are important questions too about the uniqueness of early hominin behaviour. These findings challenge previous ideas about the minimum level of cognitive and morphological complexity required to produce numerous conchoidal flakes,” Proffitt said.

It’s not entirely clear why the capuchins do this, though. More investigations might shed some light on this question.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature

Treasure trove of stone tools found in Puget Sound

Is there anything you can’t buy in today’s shopping malls? The list must be pretty short already, but now we can cut artifacts off it. Archaeologists in Redmond US., working on a routine survey to get the green light for a construction site near a mall in the area, found thousands of stone tools estimated to be at least 10,000 years old, “The Seattle Times” reported.

It started off as a routine dig, but it quicky became one of the most important finds in the area when the archaeologists dug deeper.
Image via seattletimes

The lot is situated on the shores of Bear Creek, a tributary to the Sammamish River, near Redmond Town Center in Redmond, Washington. It was already surveyed back in 2009, during a project to restore salmon habitat in the creek (they were confined in a rock-lined channel decades before). The findings then were an unremarkable assortment of artifacts, reported archaeologist Robert Kopperl of SWCA Environmental Consultants, who led the field investigations.

This time however, the team dug deeper, and found a foot-thick layer of peat. Preserved in the remnants of this ancient marsh, the team found more than 4,000 stone flakes, scrapers, awls and spear points crafted by the ancient inhabitants of the region.

“We were pretty amazed,” said Robert Kopperl.“This is the oldest archaeological site in the Puget Sound lowland with stone tools.”

Carbon dating showed that the peat was at least 10,000 years old, making the tools some of the oldest found in Puget Sound. The site appears to have been occupied by small groups of people who were making and repairing stone tools, said Kopperl.

Preliminary chemical analysis of one of the tools showed traces of the food the stone age people of Puget Sound were eating, including bison, deer, bear, sheep and salmon.

Archaeologists are very excited about the find, and it’s easy to see why: this treasure trove of artifacts is already offering fresh insight into a time when the last ice age was drawing to a close and humans shared the land with prehistoric bison and mammoths, that roamed freely and in large numbers in Western Washington, and it promises to reveal much more until all the artifacts are analyzed.

“We knew right away that it was a pretty significant find,” said Washington State Historic Preservation Officer Allyson Brooks.

Kopperl and his colleagues published their initial analysis earlier this year in the journal PaleoAmerica. He’ll discuss the findings Saturday morning in a presentation sponsored by the Redmond Historical Society.

Oldowan chopping flint dated from the Lower Paleolithic 900,000 years ago. Credit: World Museum of Man

The oldest stone cutting tools may have sparked the evolution of language

A far from definite, yet highly interesting explanation for the origin of language was recently proposed – not by linguists or geneticists, but by a psychologists who took an archaeological route. Thomas Morgan, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley presents us with a chicken or the egg dilemma: was tool use proliferated by language or was language evolutionary triggered by the need to proliferate tool use? The findings appeared in Nature. 

The tools of language

Oldowan chopping flint dated from the Lower Paleolithic 900,000 years ago. Credit: World Museum of Man

Oldowan chopping flint dated from the Lower Paleolithic 900,000 years ago. Credit: World Museum of Man

The debate over the origin of speech is long from over. Estimates range from as early 50,000 years ago to some 2 million years ago when the human genus as we know it first emerged. Unfortunately, words don’t leave fossil records and as such there’s room for much speculation. To unravel the mystery, researchers often focus their attention on proxies for language emergence like early art of sophisticated tool making. The latter caught Morgan’s attention, yet unlike his predecessors he approached the question in a novel manner.

[ALSO SEE] How the brain tackles tongue-twisting words and why it’s important

Him and colleagues recruited 184 students from the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom and organized them into five groups. One person from each group was taught how to make Oldowan tools, which include fairly simple stone flakes that were manufactured by early humans beginning about 2.5 million years ago. This makes the Oldowan  the oldest-known stone tool industry, and as such an important milestone in human evolutionary history: the earliest evidence of cultural behavior. Homo habilis, an ancestor of Homo sapiens, was the first hominid to manufacture Oldowan tools. To make an Oldowan cutting tool, you need to hit a stone “core” with a stone “hammer” in such a way that a flake sharp enough to butcher an animal is struck off.

All groups were directed to build their own Oldowan tools, but each was taught how to do make them with different approaches.

  • Group #1: volunteers were shown finished flakes, then given core and hammer. They left to themselves with no further instructions;
  • Group #2: students learned how to make the tools just by watching the leading volunteer while he manufactured the flake, but with no other interactions;
  • Group #3: subjects worked together and actively showed each other how to build the flakes, but without gesturing;
  • Group #4: students were allowed to gesture and point, but no talking was allowed;
  • Group #5: leaders were allowed to talk and instruct apprentices as long and as much as they needed;

(a) A diagram of the stone knapping process. The hammerstone strikes the core with the goal of producing the flake. The platform edge and angle are important to the success of knapping. (b-f) the five learning conditions. (g) The structureof the experiment. For each condition, six chanins were carried out (Four short and two long); one of two trained experimenters started each chain (equally with each condition). Credit: Morgan et all // Nature

The experiment tried to follow a natural path of skill transmission as possible, as each apprentice, once he acquired the necessary skills, became a teacher. In total, five different chains of transmission were demonstrated, which resulted in 5,000 completed Oldowan flakes. As expected, the students were left to themselves with no instructions performed the worse. Those who watched others how they built they tools performed mildly better. In fact, only those groups who were allowed to gesture or talk performed significantly better than the previous reverse engineering baselines. Performance was gauged based on several indicators of stone tool making like: the total number of  flakes produced that were long enough and sharp enough to be viable and the proportion of hits that resulted in a viable flake. Gestural teaching doubled and verbal teaching quadrupled the likelihood that a single strike would result in a viable flake, the team found.

“If someone is trying to learn a skill that has lots of subtlety to it, it helps to engage with a teacher and have them correct you,” Morgan said. “You learn so much faster when someone is telling you what to do.”

As for what the results mean for the Oldowan hominins: “They were probably not talking,” Morgan said. “These tools are the only tools they made for 700,000 years. So if people had language, they would have learned faster and developed newer technologies more rapidly.”

[DON’T MISS] A language that shouldn’t exist may teach us a lot about the origin of speech

Yet, for tool making to spread across vast communities of hominids you necessarily need a teaching system in place. Gestures work pretty well, but we can assume there was also some kind of protolanguage. As tools became more and more important, so did the need for conveying knowledge on how these are built. The ability to rapidly share the skill to make Oldowan tools would have brought fitness benefits” to early humans, Morgan says. Natural selection would soon come at play and improve on primitive language abilities. Eventually, a semantically rich language emerged. This hypothesis seems to be validated by the next generation of tools –  the advent of Acheulean hand-axes and cleavers some 1.7 million years ago.

“To sustain Acheulean technology, there must have been some kind of teaching, and maybe even a kind of language, going on, even just a simple proto-language using sounds or gestures for ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ or ‘here’ or ‘there,'” Morgan said.

“At some point they reached a threshold level of communication that allowed Acheulean hand axes to start being taught and spread around successfully and that almost certainly involved some sort of teaching and proto-type language,” Morgan said.

Some scientists, have criticized the study however. Ceri Shipton, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, believes Morgan’s paper “overreaches in its interpretations” because the subjects had grown up with language, but have not grown up with stone tools. Dietrich Stout, an archaeologist at Emory University in Atlanta argues that the participants were given far too less time to learn the Oldowan craft: 5 minutes to learn the toolmaking techniques, and then no more than 25 minutes to produce Oldowan flakes. Had they been given more time, Stout believes the differences in the five methods of transmission would have become largely indistinguishable.

Nevertheless, it’s an exciting paper. The debate ensues and this is far from being the last thing we’ll learn about the origin of language.


Chimps Pass down Skills to Peers and Establish Cultures

Chimps, our closest relatives, can pass down knowledge and skills, like using a new tool for instance, and establish cultural communities, according to a recently study published in PLOS Biology. Communicating and passing down skills, inventions and knowledge is considering a pre-requisite to what we commonly refer to as human culture, and the findings suggest that this kind of behavior can be traced back to the common ancestry we share with other primates.

Chimp culture


A breathtaking shot of a fellow primate, enjoying a dip by the water. Photo: Capital Wired

Dr. Catherine Hobaiter from the University of St. Andrews was always fascinated that some chimp communities employ certain tools, while neighboring communities use other tools or no tool at all for a given task. This suggests that these various practices and habits suggest that there are different chimp cultures, and that these are passed down from other chimps. For instance, a community Hobaiter and colleagues studied uses leaf sponges – leafs folded in the chimp’s mouth – to dip the water and drink from them. Quite civilized. It’s almost impossible to tell when this technique was introduced or who the original inventor was.

The researchers, however, were fortunate enough to witness the introduction of a new tools before their very own eyes. Nick, a 29-year-old alpha male chimpanzee, made a sponge made of moss while being watched by Nambi, a dominant adult female. Soon enough, seven other chimps were found to make and use their own moss sponges in just six days following the invention. It’s a remarkable example of social learning, yet this is the first time it was witnessed in the wild!

“This study tells us that chimpanzee culture changes over time, little by little, by building on previous knowledge found within the community,” said Thibaud Gruber, one of the researchers. “This is probably how our early ancestors’ cultures also changed over time. In this respect, this is a great example of how studying chimpanzee culture can help us model the evolution of human culture. Nevertheless, something must have subsequently happened in our evolution that caused a qualitative shift in what we could transmit, rendering our culture much more complex than anything found in wild apes. Understanding this qualitative jump in our evolutionary history is what we need to investigate now.”

To demonstrate the inheritance of the sponge, the researchers build a complex static and a dynamic network model. The most conservative estimate of social transmission accounted for 85% of observed events, with an estimated 15-fold increase in learning rate for each time a novice observed an informed individual moss-sponging.

Chimps can be so amazing at adapting to their environments and are remarkable social creatures (I have a hunch they’re not the only primates capable of doing this either). Chimps use specific gesture language to communicate with their peers, a behavior which is most likely also culturally passed down. But maybe the most evident display of chimp culture is that they also embrace fashion fads. Yes, you’ve heard right – after following a group of chimps from the  Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, a sanctuary in Zambia, researchers found that after an individual was ‘parading’ around with a grass in his ear, other chimps began to do the same after a while.

Stone tools from Kharga Oasis, Egypt, one of the archaeological sites used in the study. Photograph reproduced with kind permission from The British Museum

Early modern humans were culturally diverse before leaving Africa

Stone tools from Kharga Oasis, Egypt, one of the archaeological sites used in the study. Photograph reproduced with kind permission from The British Museum

Stone tools from Kharga Oasis, Egypt, one of the archaeological sites used in the study. Photograph: The British Museum

Early modern human populations were culturally diverse and sometimes exchanged tools helped by river networks in a then savanna rich Sahara, according to the biggest ever comparative study of stone tools dating to between 130,000 and 75,000 years ago. At least four distinct populations, each relatively isolated from each other, have been identified as possessing distinct cultural practices.

Different tools, different cultures

The researchers from the University of Oxford, Kings College London and the University of Bordeaux took over 300,000 measurements of stone tools from 17 archaeological sites across North Africa, including the Sahara. Before early humans left Africa to settle communities in Eurasia, the Sahara we know today as a barren and inhospitable wasteland was considerably different. There were widespread areas filled with patchwork of savanna, grasslands and water, while the desert was interspersed between.

When assessing how ancient communities developed, it’s important to have a really accurate picture of how the climate was at the time, being an important element that puts things into context. With this in mind, the researchers studied climate models coupled with data about these ancient water courses, before finally matching these with new found data surrounding cutting tools. Because Africa’s extremely hot climate, ancient DNA has yet to be found and the most reliable artifacts that document the existence of early modern humans continue to be stone tools.

[RELATED] Neanderthals developed the first bone tools

Armed with this new found data, the researchers were able to infer the context in which the ancient populations made and used their tools. For the first time, tangible evidence was obtained that suggest early human communities were ‘budding’ with other populations along the ancient rivers and watercourses.

‘This is the first time that scientists have identified that early modern humans at the cusp of dispersal out of Africa were grouped in separate, isolated and local populations. Stone tools are the only form of preserved material culture for most of human history. In Africa, owing to the hot climate, ancient DNA has not yet been found. These stone tools reveal how early populations of modern humans dispersed across the Sahara just before they left North Africa. While different populations were relatively isolated, we were interested to find that when connected by rivers, they share similarities in their tool-making suggesting some interaction with one another,’ said Dr Eleanor Scerri, visiting scholar at the University of Oxford.

The researchers were careful to remove some of the causes that produce variability, but were not particularly tied to cultural characteristics, like raw materials.

‘Not much is known about the structure of early modern human populations in Africa, particularly at the time of their earliest dispersals into Eurasia. Our picture of modern human demography around 100,000 years ago is that there were a number of populations, varying in size and degree of genetic contact, distributed over a wide geographical area. This model of our population history supports other theories recently put forward that modern humans may have first successfully left Africa earlier than 60,000-50,000 years ago, which had been the common view among scholars. Our work provides important new evidence that sheds light on both the timing of early modern human dispersals out of Africa and the character of our interaction with other human species, such as Neanderthals,’ said Scerri.

Thanks to a growing body of evidence, the paradigm has shifted from asking whether or not humans originated from Africa, then spread out to the rest of the world, to the question ‘which of these distinct populations went in and out of Africa?’. A crucial next step involves fieldwork in areas such as the Arabian Peninsula to understand how these populations spread into Eurasia.

The findings were reported in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Neanderthals developed first bone tools

Modern humans started ‘replacing’ Neanderthals some 40.000 years ago, and for a long time, it was thought this came as a result of the more advanced human intelect and a better ability to adapt; but as more and more studies unfold, the Neandertals’ capabilities are still greatly debated. Many scientists now argue that Neandertals had cultural capabilities similar to modern humans, and in some ways, were even intellectually superior.

bone tools

Such may be the case with these bone tools – it may not be that humans taught Neanderthals how to develop them, but the other way around.

“For now the bone tools from these two sites are one of the better pieces of evidence we have for Neandertals developing on their own a technology previously associated only with modern humans,” explains Dr. Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He and Dr. Michel Lenoir of the University of Bordeaux have been excavating the site of Abri Peyrony where three of the bones were found.

Usually, whenever we find something from that period, it is either developed by humans or by humans and Neanderthals at the same time – this is a rare occasion when the roles have been reversed. The possibilities this discovery suggests are quite interesting.

“If Neandertals developed this type of bone tool on their own, it is possible that modern humans then acquired this technology from Neandertals. Modern humans seem to have entered Europe with pointed bone-tools only, and soon after started to make lissoir. This is the first possible evidence for transmission from Neandertals to our direct ancestors,” says Dr. Soressi of Leiden University, Netherland.

She and her team found these bone tools at the French site of Pech-de-l’Azé I.

But there is another possibility – that this was also a human achievement, but humans entered Neanderthal territory sooner than previously believed. While more unlikely, this is also possible; regardless, the significance of this discovery offers a whole new angle to Neanderthalean tools.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1302730110


5 eco-tools for a greener garden

Working in the garden brings people out into the great outdoors, making them more appreciative of nature’s fragile beauty, yet all too often, the garden tools and equipment that they use are not friendly to the environment. To ensure that nature’s beauty is there to enjoy for generations to come, many gardeners are seeking out eco-friendly garden tools. Here are five products that are made sustainably, that help preserve the planet’s precious resources or that encourage recycling and reuse practices.


1. Rowlinson Beehive Composter


Composters turn garden and household refuse into nutrient-rich soil. The Rowlinson Beehive Composter is made with pressure treated wood and resembles a beehive, making it an attractive and eco-friendly addition to a garden. It comes with a lockable handle that prevents pests and rodents from gaining access to the composter, and it guaranteed not to rot for 15 years.

2. Burpee XL Eco Friendly Ultimate Growing System


This starting kit for seeds and seedlings is made from biodegradable products. The trays are made from plant products and the growth medium is made from renewable coconut coir. The XL Eco Friendly Ultimate Growing System comes with two 16-unit trays, a self-watering mat, two plant stands, wooden labels and organic fertilizer.

3. Ascot Eco Garden Set with Tools

Ascot Garden

A PVC-free garden tote is kinder to the environment. The Eco Garden Set features multiple pockets for gardening tools, as well as side pockets for a beverage or a snack. The kit comes with three different heavy-gauge stainless gardening trowels.

4. Green Toys Indoor Gardening Kit

When it comes to gardening products for children, it’s even more important to consider eco-friendly items that are free from harmful chemicals and compounds. This starter kit for children is made from recycled milk containers that contain no phthalates or BPA. The Indoor Gardening Kit includes three planting pots, three packs of soil, a tray, a trowel and packets of zinnia, sunflower and basil seeds.

5. Sun Whisper 19-inch Mower

A lawnmower that is powered by the energy of the sun helps cut down a homeowner’s energy bills and helps conserve the planet’s resources too. This Sun Whisper mower runs on solar power. When not in uses, the detachable solar panel is placed in a location where it will receive sunlight to recharge the mower’s battery. As no gas or electricity is needed to operate the mower, the Sun Whisper mower operates as quietly as a push mower.


Tool fish

Fish use tools, video proves!

Tool fishPeople used to think Chimpanzee tool-use was impressive, but it in the past decades it has  been documented that dolphins, whales or birds posses the necessary intelligence to use tools and the environment surrouding them in their benefit. A recent video posted by a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, puts things into perspective even further, as it clearly shows a fish using a tool.

Giacomo Bernardi, the biologist in question, was diving with his camera when he caught right in the act a orange-dotted tuskfish as it was digging a clam out of the sand.  The fish then carried the clam over to a rock and threw it against the rock in order to crush it.

“What the movie shows is very interesting,” Bernardi was quoted as saying in a press release. “The animal excavates sand to get the shell out, then swims for a long time to find an appropriate area where it can crack the shell. It requires a lot of forward thinking, because there are a number of steps involved. For a fish, it’s a pretty big deal.”

The footage was shot in Palau and was described by Bernardi it in the journal Coral Reefs.

Evidently, the orange-dotted tuskfish is some what more far witted than its goldfish cousin, and one can only presume that this is far from being an isolated incident. After all the peculiar things we’ve published on this website, you’d think one can become accustomed to all kinds of oddities of nature (oddities to the still ignorant folk that we are). Sorry to say, but not a day goes by without finding myself surprised by all these secrets of life that get unraveled from time to time – some small, some vital. What’s next?

600,000 year old discovered tool mill provies new Homo Erectus insights

Bust of Peking Man on permanent display at Zhoukoudian, China

We now know that pre-modern human tool use dates back far beyond we previously might have thought, each discovery proving that our early ancestors showed sign of intelligence and early social evolution. A recent finding in central China of a prehistoric tool mill dating back 600,000 years ago used by Homo Erectus in the Lushi Basin, South Luo River, supports this hypothesis. The discovery was dated using pedostratigraphic analysis, optically stimulated luminescence, and magnetostratigraphic analysis which authenticated the aforementioned period.

Basically, the Lushi Basin site shows that Home Erectus actually had some sort of tool factory (100 stone implements were found), where flake and core technology, similar to other tools used by Home Erectus and found in China at other sites, proving that they actually were organized at a greater level of sophistication then previously thought.

Prof. Huayu Lu has co-authored a thesis on the finding with researchers from the Henan archeological institute and La Trobe University of Australia. The thesis was published on the latest issue of Journal of Human Evolution, where you can read more about the discovery (for 19.95$ unfortunately).