Tool Use by Non-Human Primates
Humans have used tools since the dawn of our species. Evidence is accumulating that extinct hominins also used stones as tools, apparently in ways similar to how a few species of primates in South America, Africa, and Asia use them: as hammers to open encased foods. Nonhuman primates, compared to humans, use simpler objects as tools and use tools in simpler ways. Unlike humans, no nonhuman primate is an obligate tool user. Individuals neither teach others nor learn via imitation to use tools. Nevertheless, we consider that the populations of primates that use tools possess technical traditions, because young individuals learn to use tools in social settings. Certain features of ecology, behavior, sociality, and life history characterize all the species of primates, including humans, that use tools. I will use the example of bearded capuchin monkeys, small monkeys from South America that routinely use stone hammers to crack nuts, to illustrate the natural history of a technical tradition in a nonhuman primate, and the individual attributes and social and ecological contexts that support this tradition. Bearded capuchins give us a suggestion of the features that led hominins, that last shared a common ancestor with capuchin monkeys 35 million years ago, into routine tool use. Comparing tool use in nonhuman primates and humans leads to ideas about the attributes of humans that have led us to differ so dramatically from other primates in technical prowess and technical traditions.