Savanna chimpanzees use tools to harvest the underground storage organs of plants.
It has been hypothesized that plant underground storage organs (USOs) played key roles in the initial hominin colonization of savanna habitats, the development of the distinctive skull and tooth morphology of the genus Australopithecus, and the evolution of the genus Homo by serving as "fallback foods" exploited during periods of food shortage. These hypotheses have been tested mostly by morphological, isotopic, and microwear analyses of hominin bones and teeth. Archaeological evidence of USO digging technology is equivocal. Until now relevant data from studies of chimpanzees, useful in behavioral models of early hominins because of their phylogenetic proximity and anatomical similarities, have been lacking. Here we report on the first evidence of chimpanzees using tools to dig for USOs, suggesting that exploitation of such resources was within the cognitive and technological reach of the earliest hominins. Consistent with scenarios of hominin adaptation to savannas, these data come from Ugalla (Tanzania), one of the driest, most open and seasonal chimpanzee habitats. USOs are, however, exploited during the rainy season, well after the period of most likely food shortage, contradicting the specific prediction of fallback food hypotheses. The discovery that savanna chimpanzees use tools to obtain USOs contradicts yet another claim of human uniqueness and provides a model for the study of variables influencing USO use among early hominins.