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Author Topic: The evolution of toolmaking  (Read 4834 times)

another_someone

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The evolution of toolmaking
« on: 01/12/2007 19:17:03 »
The evolution of toolmaking


OK, I know most of my questions tend to be met with a deafening silence, but here goes, we'll see if anyone has any ideas on this.

What I were a lad, we were always taught that humans were the only species of animal to use tools.

Since then, we have looked closely at a number of other species, from apes to birds, and found them to be using tools.

The fact that we looked today, and today saw that all these species were using tools, but failed to look properly 30 years ago, merely tells us that we cannot (as far as direct evidence goes) actually tell if these animals were using tools 30 years ago or not.  Much less can we say if these animals were using tools 100 years ago, 1,000 years ago, or 1,000,000 years ago.

We do know that human tool usage has evolved in leaps and bounds, even over a period of a few decades, and much more so over a period of millennia.  Thus, although the tools used by other species are still very much more primitive than anything humans have used for a million or so years, it is still not inconceivable that tool usage has evolved in recent times in other species.

One contrary argument might be that our closest relatives, the great apes, all use tools.  This might indicate that the closest common ancestor between the great apes and ourselves also used tools; but it still does not exclude the possibility that the great apes developed tool usage independently, and the development in both human and non-human alike happened after the great ape lineages split.

What evidence do we have about the evolution of tool usage in non-human animals (whether it be in the great apes, or in birds or other species)?


 

Offline WylieE

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The evolution of toolmaking
« Reply #1 on: 04/12/2007 06:39:40 »
 
my questions tend to be met with a deafening silence, but here goes, we'll see if anyone has any ideas on this.


Well, I don't know the answer to your question, but just to prevent the deafening silence I'll post my two cents worth.

There have been many recent "discoveries" that chimps and other animals are using tools in ways we had not expected, in fact, in ways we had quite clearly thought they were incapable of doing.  My guess is that this is one of those cases that if you aren't looking for it you won't see it.  I highly doubt that chimps suddenly in the last 20 years started this behavior.  They have probably been doing it all along, we just either never noticed, didn't believe it, or didn't consider it toolmaking. 

In the defense of the scientist studying them early on - it took the patience and approaches of people like Jane Goodall, and the advantage of excellent lenses and video equipment to make these types of discoveries.  The first part allowed the subjects to be comfortable enough around the observers to relax and "act normally."  The latter was important for convincing the rest of the world.  I would bet that 100 years ago there were people who saw chimps using tools and they probably came back and told others. . but how seriously would these reports have been taken without pictures or some hard proof.  It is easier to accept these ideas now, that a few cases have been documented well.

OK- that's it for my speculation. . .

The only thing I could find on real evolution of tools in primates is that they have been doing it for a long, long time. . . .
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070213142924.htm
 
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Before this study, chimpanzees were first observed using stone tools in the 19th century. Now, thanks to this new archaeological find, tool use by chimpanzees has been pushed back thousands of years. The authors suggest this type of tool use could have originated with our common ancestor, instead of arising independently among hominins and chimpanzees or through imitation of humans by chimpanzees.
 

Offline Carol-A

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The evolution of toolmaking
« Reply #2 on: 04/12/2007 10:51:31 »
I think that primates use tools, but they don't make tools. They use something suitable that they find, where primative man took things they found and adapted them to make better tools than they already were.
 

Offline WylieE

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The evolution of toolmaking
« Reply #3 on: 05/12/2007 00:13:09 »
Hi Carol,

There are several documented cases of chimps actually adapting what is available to make better tools.  An example would be Jane Goodall's famous observation that chimps prepare the grass and sticks they use for fishing out termites.

This is my favorite example- Chimps use two different tools, one to puncture the termite mound, then a second (That they modify by chewing on) to fish out the termites.

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For subterranean nests the chimps use their feet to force a larger "puncturing stick" into the earth, drilling holes into termite chambers, and then a separate fishing probe to harvest the insects. Often the chimps modified the fishing probe, pulling it through their teeth to fray the end like a paintbrush. The frayed edge was better for collecting the insects.

The rest of the article is very interesting and has some great videos to watch also:
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/10/1006_041006_chimps.html

Colleen
 

another_someone

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The evolution of toolmaking
« Reply #4 on: 05/12/2007 01:15:07 »
I think that primates use tools, but they don't make tools. They use something suitable that they find, where primative man took things they found and adapted them to make better tools than they already were.

Going even beyond primates:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/10/071004-crows-tools.html
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Ultralight video cameras fastened to the tail feathers of crows have shown the birds to be versatile tool-users in the wild.

The first-of-its-kind study reveals that wild New Caledonian crows use a greater variety of tools and foraging techniques than had previously been thought, researchers say.

So far, research on captive birds has demonstrated the species' remarkable cognitive and tool-making abilities.

And field studies of remnants left by tool-making birds—such as leaves that had been bitten into strips to serve as probes—had also suggested that tool use is common in wild populations.

But researchers had few direct observations of crows making and using tools in a natural setting, due to the difficulty of actually watching their behavior in the birds' dense forest habitat.

New Caledonian crows live in mountainous forests on islands in the South Pacific. In the wild the species is highly sensitive to disturbance by human observers.

A research team led by Christian Rutz of the University of Oxford in England solved this problem by mounting tiny cameras on the tails of individual birds.

The 13-gram (0.5-ounce) cameras—slightly heavier than two U.S. quarters—provide the closest thing yet to a bird's-eye view of behavior in a natural setting.

"The lens is pushed forward through the central tail feathers and peeks through the bird's legs," Rutz said. "You have a shot showing part of the crow's belly and whatever appears in front of the bird."

Rutz and colleagues describe their bird-mounted video cameras in this week's edition of the journal Science.

Unexpected Behaviors

Although their pilot study was intended primarily as a demonstration of the new technology, the researchers gained important new information about the crows' life in the wild.

"With seven hours of video [from 12 individual crows] we made more new discoveries than in hundreds of hours of field observations," Rutz said.

Researchers already knew that the crows "fish" for beetle larvae in dead wood with tools made from sticks or leaves.

Video footage showed that the crows also forage extensively on the ground, using a previously unreported type of tool—stalks of grass—to turn over loose material in search of insects.

"The fact that they use tools on the ground shows that the niche they exploit with their tool use is much larger than previously thought," Rutz said.

Another discovery was that the crows did not always use whatever stick or stem was close by to serve as a foraging tool.

In one instance, Rutz said, a favored tool was used over a prolonged period of time and carried in flight from one location to another.

Smaller Crittercams

Each crow-mounted camera contained a radio beacon that allowed researchers to track the bird's location during and after filming and to eventually retrieve the camera.

Testing on captive crows proved that the units could be easily carried and did not affect the birds' behavior, Rutz said.

Researcher and filmmaker Greg Marshall is a pioneer in the use of animal-mounted video for research and the inventor of National Geographic's Crittercam.

(National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

"This is the first application of one of these systems in wild birds for research purposes," Marshall said.

"These guys have pushed the frontier in terms of identifying interesting research questions that can be addressed [through animal-mounted video] over fairly short periods of time."

Because battery weight is a major constraint in ultralight video systems, Marshall noted, cameras on birds cannot currently be deployed for periods of days or weeks.

In the crow study, the cameras were set to begin filming 48 hours after they were installed. The devices captured footage for 30 to 60 minutes before losing power.

But Marshall and Rutz said that lighter and longer-lasting systems can be expected with improvements in technology.

"Very soon it will be possible to capture footage from really small species," Rutz said.

"I'm confident that in the next five years or so this will take off and become one of the standard techniques in field ornithology."

Bird expert John Rotenberry at the University of California Riverside said that "for birds large enough to support the hardware, this is a pretty promising system."

Unfortunately, he added, video tracking remains far out of reach for his own work on sparrows and other songbirds.

"[The system] will need to get down to around 300 to 600 milligrams [0.01 to 0.02 ounce] before I get to use it," Rotenberry said.

Note the reference not only to tool use, but to tool making.
 

another_someone

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The evolution of toolmaking
« Reply #5 on: 05/12/2007 01:42:41 »
Colleen,

Thanks for the response, and the reference.

I do agree that it does seem unlikely that tool use is a recent phenomenon in chimps (and the recent discovery merely confirms that - but without such confirmation, it would ofcourse be no more than conjecture).

On the other hand:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimpanzee#History_of_human_interaction
Quote
Africans have had contact with chimpanzees for millennia. Chimpanzees have been kept as domesticated pets for centuries in a few African villages, especially in Congo.

Thus there is ample opportunity for technology transfer between humans and chimps, at least for centuries, and I could easily imagine for millennia.

This is not to say that such a technology transfer actually was the prime driver for chimp tool use.  It could even be that in the early development of proto-humans, there was a continual bidirectional technology transfer, until proto-human tool development started to outstrip chimp tool development.

The other possibility is, as you say, that the common ancestor of humans and the other great apes was already a tool user (albeit, it does not necessarily follow that the they were as sophisticated a tool maker as even modern chimps).

One argument I would support for suggesting that tool making must have existed before the first human, chimp, or maybe even primate, walked the earth, is that I think we may have too narrow a view of tool making.  I am wondering if we should not consider nest building as a form of tool making, the tool in this case being an artificial habitat that provides some form of protection for its occupant.
 

Offline WylieE

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The evolution of toolmaking
« Reply #6 on: 05/12/2007 02:56:21 »
Hi George,
 Right, I think it would be really hard to differentiate between whether modern chimps learned from us or on their own.  Interesting about the crows, that's pretty cool.  And yeah, it certainly seems like nests would be a "modification of the environment"  also with beaver dams, fox dens, etc.

  The story of the crows reminds me of two things-

1.  Where I used to live there was a Mulberry tree and after the berries had been on there for a long time they would ferment in the sun.  Then a flock of crows would come and spend a few days there eating the mulberries.  They would fall out of the trees, roll around on the ground and basically spend the few days there drunk.  They did this every year that I lived there for 5 years- one big crow party.  I know, it's not tool related, but it did amaze me that somehow they remembered to check this tree every year- and I never saw them eating the mulberries when they were ripe (of course I wasn't watching all the time).  From this behavior of the crows it is not hard to imagine how the first humans discovered alcohol.   

2. The Kea, a parrot from New Zealand, loves to play with "toys" especially any rubber on cars parked near their territory.  They love to tear it off and play with it.  If one took a broader meaning of tools- I wonder if there are animals that modify items for play.

 

another_someone

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The evolution of toolmaking
« Reply #7 on: 05/12/2007 03:43:39 »
And yeah, it certainly seems like nests would be a "modification of the environment"  also with beaver dams, fox dens, etc.

I would totally agree about a beaver's dam, but I would not regard a foxes den in the same category.  A fox may make some modification to the den, but it is fairly non-specific, and it does not carry material to the den for the purpose of the construction.  The comparison I would make is between a chimp using a stick (very possibly modified for the purpose) to fish for termites, and a woodpecker simply burrowing into a tree to look for insects.  A fox's den is more like the latter case.  The beaver's dam certainly falls into the former category.

  The story of the crows reminds me of two things-

1.  Where I used to live there was a Mulberry tree and after the berries had been on there for a long time they would ferment in the sun.  Then a flock of crows would come and spend a few days there eating the mulberries.  They would fall out of the trees, roll around on the ground and basically spend the few days there drunk.  They did this every year that I lived there for 5 years- one big crow party.  I know, it's not tool related, but it did amaze me that somehow they remembered to check this tree every year- and I never saw them eating the mulberries when they were ripe (of course I wasn't watching all the time).  From this behavior of the crows it is not hard to imagine how the first humans discovered alcohol.   

I think I have heard of elephants behaving in a similar fashion.

2. The Kea, a parrot from New Zealand, loves to play with "toys" especially any rubber on cars parked near their territory.  They love to tear it off and play with it.  If one took a broader meaning of tools- I wonder if there are animals that modify items for play.

While I can see a theoretical possibility that an animal could deliberately fashion a toy as if it were a tool, I don't see the above being an example of that.

It is true that what you describe is a bird that creates toys from its environment, but from what I understand it is not purposeful in its construction.  What I mean by that is that when a chimp uses a twig to hunt for termites, it has a particular function for the tool in mind, and it optimises the tool for the specific function, and so all tools so tailored should be fairly similar in those respects that serve that function.  In the same way, you can look at a birds nest, or even a bee hive, as you will see something that is consistent to a high degree in its construction, and that consistency is dictated by its purpose.  I am not so sure how much you can say that the same level of purposeful consistency exists in the toys of a Kea.

In other words, what the Kea seems to be doing is grabbing a bit of rubber, and say "I wonder what I can do with this?".  What a bird does when it is building a nest is it says "I want to build a nest, what do I need to bring to the construction, and how do I need to apply it, to achieve that goal?".
 

Offline WylieE

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The evolution of toolmaking
« Reply #8 on: 05/12/2007 07:27:09 »
Yes, in this situation the Keas are not making a toy- but I wonder if there are animals that do that.

Cool about the elephants!  I didn't know they drank :D
 

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The evolution of toolmaking
« Reply #9 on: 05/12/2007 09:17:11 »
Colleen,

Thanks for the response, and the reference.

I do agree that it does seem unlikely that tool use is a recent phenomenon in chimps (and the recent discovery merely confirms that - but without such confirmation, it would of course be no more than conjecture).

On the other hand:

http://en.wiped.org/wiki/Chimpanzee#History_of_human_interaction
Quote
Africans have had contact with chimpanzees for millennia. Chimpanzees have been kept as domesticated pets for centuries in a few African villages, especially in Congo.

Thus there is ample opportunity for technology transfer between humans and chimps, at least for centuries, and I could easily imagine for millennia.

This is not to say that such a technology transfer actually was the prime driver for chimp tool use.  It could even be that in the early development of proto-humans, there was a continual bidirectional technology transfer, until proto-human tool development started to outstrip chimp tool development.

The other possibility is, as you say, that the common ancestor of humans and the other great apes was already a tool user (albeit, it does not necessarily follow that the they were as sophisticated a tool maker as even modern chimps).

One argument I would support for suggesting that tool making must have existed before the first human, chimp, or maybe even primate, walked the earth, is that I think we may have too narrow a view of tool making.  I am wondering if we should not consider nest building as a form of tool making, the tool in this case being an artificial habitat that provides some form of protection for its occupant.

I kinda of agree with you about how we think of nest building .. etc. There are are specific otems a bird will gather to use in its nest, like string and grass that is woven and worked like a tool to support their needs the nests are often lined with feathers or other what seems to be purposely soft things to line the nest perhaps retain heat and provide a soft gentle bed in which hatchlings can safely lay without being skewered or poked by pokey sticks twigs etc. It seems too me the parents pick suitable tools to use as building material etc.
 

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