Capuchin monkeys are in the stone age, using rocks to crack nuts. It turns out they’ve been in this era for a while. Animal archaeologists have found a monkey stone age site made 3,000 years ago1.
Of course, these aren’t the only animals to have a stone age thousands of years old. Animal archaeologists have also found chimp sites that nearly predate the pyramids.
However, it turns out that the monkey stone age has something the chimps are lacking: innovation. Monkey technology actually adapts and changes over the course of their stone age1, whilst chimps’ tools remain the same.
Where is the monkey stone age?
The innovative capuchin monkeys in question live in Brazil, at the Serra da Capivara National Park1. This place also features some pretty sweet human archaeology, including some great cave art, making it a UNESCO world heritage site.
Anyhoo, there are some cashew nut trees in this national park at the creatively titled site “Caju BPF2”. Primatologist Dr Tiago Falótico and psychologist Dr Eduardo Ottoni studied how capuchin monkeys used tools to gain access to these tasty snacks1.
First, the capuchins would take these nuts and place them on a hard surface (like a rock or tree root). Then they’d hit it with another rock, cracking it open to get at the goodies inside2. It’s all classic stone age stuff our family also did.
Given capuchins have been seen cracking nuts at Caju BPF2 for years, Dr Falótico and Dr Ottoni joined others in digging up the site to study it archaeologically. How far back did this nut cracking go3?
Initial excavations suggested the site was around 700 years old3, but further digging pushed that back to 1,000 BC. Crucially, these follow-up excavations also revealed that there had been some innovation amongst the capuchins during their monkey stone age1.
Monkey stone age history
In the beginning, in 1,000 BC, these monkeys weren’t after cashew nuts. Instead, they were cracking something smaller. Falótico, Ottoni, and the rest figured this out because the hammers had more damage; since the monkeys more often missed this smaller target and struck the anvil1.
However, by 1700 AD this began to change. The monkeys began using bigger hammers and anvils. Falótico et al. reckon that this is because they were trying to crack something bigger and tougher than cashews or their early, smaller food1.
Finally, in maybe the last 30 years, the capuchin monkeys reached the modern phase. Tools like those they use today to crack cashew nuts are found, indicating a shift towards their current diet1.
However, other groups of capuchins elsewhere still practice those “older” behaviours where small/tough food is more common. The capuchin stone age isn’t just innovative, it’s adaptable too1.
In contrast, chimps seem to have been cracking the same nut the same way for their 4,000 year old stone age. Perhaps the planet of the apes isn’t on its way after all.
Instead, watch out for the planet of the innovative capuchins.
- Falótico, T., Proffitt, T., Ottoni, E.B., Staff, R.A. and Haslam, M., 2019. Three thousand years of wild capuchin stone tool use. Nature Ecology & Evolution, p.1.
- Falótico, T. and Ottoni, E.B., 2016. The manifold use of pounding stone tools by wild capuchin monkeys of Serra da Capivara National Park, Brazil. Behaviour, 153(4), pp.421-442.
- Haslam, M., Luncz, L.V., Staff, R.A., Bradshaw, F., Ottoni, E.B. and Falótico, T., 2016. Pre-Columbian monkey tools. Current Biology, 26(13), pp.R521-R522.