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Archaeology studies our past through the objects ancient people left behind. For most of human evolution, this means looking at the trillions of stone tools our family made. But other animals also use stones as tools, like chimps1, monkeys2, otters3, and more. So can we study their “animal archaeology” as well?
And this isn’t just some fun side activity. Animal archaeology offers a unique chance to study the origins of early technology. We can also track their behaviour over thousands of years; which would be impossible to do normally (unless Jane Goodall starts bathing in virgin blood).
So in an effort to persuade her not too, let’s take a dive into animal archaeology with my 3 favourite examples.
Outside of us, chimps are the most extensive tool users. So it only make sense that animal archaeology started with them. Way back in the misty lands of 2002 chimp archaeology (or Panthropology, if you’re feeling punny) was born when Mercader and team began excavating Panda 1004.
Don’t let the name confuse you. Panda 100 has nothing to do with pandas. It’s actually an old chimpanzee nut-cracking hotspot in Tai National Park on the Ivory Coast. The name comes from the Panda tree there, whose nuts chimps just love to eat (after cracking them open with rocks). However, they abandoned the site in the 90s when that tree died4.
Whilst the chimps saw this as a disappointment, Mercader et al. saw an opportunity. A natural experiment to see what stone tools look like shortly after being buried. So they went and dug up the site using typical archaeological techniques. What they found surprised them1.
It was known that chimps had been cracking nuts there since the 70s, when scientists started studying the area. However, radiocarbon dating of the site reveals it was actually in use for more than 4,000 years1!
This makes Panda 100 the oldest animal archaeology site. Obviously, it can tell us a lot about chimps, but also sheds light on our own evolution.
#2: Monkeying around with animal archaeology
In the case of Panda 100, archaeologists knew what chimps were doing there as they saw them in action a few years prior. However, in archaeology, we often don’t have that luxury. There are no Homo erectus around for us to experiment on.
Primatologists in Thailand were in a similar problem. They found stone hammers at an abandoned palm oil plantation, near a local macaque population. They put two and two together and inferred those macaques likely snuck onto the plantation and used the hammers to crack open the tasty nuts being grown2.
It’s archaeology in action, making inferences from what
people macaques left behind.
However, these researchers were able to take things a step further and put their inferences to the test. They “restarted” the plantation by scattering palm oil nuts around and waited. It didn’t take long for the monkeys to realise the palm oil was back. And sure enough, they started using rock hammers to crack open the nuts and get at the sweet treats inside2.
Not only were these researchers vindicated, but they gained new insight into how these primates could quickly adapt to humans. In the process, we also learnt how innovative early stone tool users in our own family might have been.
#3: Otter animal archaeology
So far, all of this animal archaeology is really just primate archaeology. Hell, since we’re also primates even regular archaeology falls under that category. However, primates not the only lineage to use tools, so we’re not the only lineage that can be archaeology-ed.
Take the sea otter, which is the only marine mammal to commonly use tools to get food. Famously, they float on their back with some shellfish on their chest; which they hit with a rock until they can get at the gooey fun inside3.
However, this isn’t the only form of seat otter tool use. For particularly stubborn items, they’ll find a stone anvil to supplement their rock hammer3.
Crucially, it seems otters will have a preferred anvil. 10 years of research on these otters in California revealed them frequently returning to the same rock, which would build up the telltale signs of being used as an anvil.
The piles of broken muscle shells were also a dead give away.
This finding is less helpful to our understanding of human evolution, since we definitely didn’t come from aquatic apes. However, it does highlight how animal archaeology is more than just primates, earning it the final spot on my list.
- Mercader, J., Barton, H., Gillespie, J., Harris, J., Kuhn, S., Tyler, R. and Boesch, C. 2007. 4,300-year-old chimpanzee sites and the origins of percussive stone technology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104 (9), pp. 3043–3048.
- Luncz, L.V., Svensson, M.S., Haslam, M., Malaivijitnond, S., Proffitt, T. and Gumert, M., 2017. Technological Response of Wild Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) to Anthropogenic Change. International Journal of Primatology, pp.1-9.
- Haslam, M., Fujii, J., Espinosa, S., Mayer, K., Ralls, K., Tinker, M.T. and Uomini, N., 2019. Wild sea otter mussel pounding leaves archaeological traces. Scientific reports, 9(1), p.4417.
- Mercader, J., Panger, M. and Boesch, C. 2002. Excavation of a chimpanzee stone tool site in the African rainforest. Science, 296 (5572), pp. 1452–1455.