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Capuchin Monkey Throws Wrench into Human Evolution Story

You know all those primitive stone flake tools unearthed by archeologists the world over and attributed to our evolving hominid ancestors? Researchers in a Brazilian forest have just recorded the lowly capuchin monkey creating stone flakes by earnestly bashing one stone against another.

The New York Times was quick to minimize the significance of the discovery. After reporting on the new finding, James Gorman writes:

The findings don’t challenge the record of human evolution in Africa, researchers say, in which such tools are found in a context that makes clear they were produced by hominids. But the flakes do show that neither the human hand nor brain is necessary for making such artifacts.

This is a misdirect. Sure, ancient hominids banged rocks together from time to time, creating sharp flakes for primitive cutting tools. But many evolutionists have offered the presence of such stone flakes at archeological sites as strong evidence that some of our human ancestors were making the leap from pre-human hominids who were too stupid to create stone flakes, to smarter hominids — Darwinian evolution in action.

The discovery that capuchin monkeys can and do create sharp stone flakes by bashing one rock against another is a reminder that stone flakes alone do not a human ancestor make. And it underscores that, hey, now that we see it, of course it’s not exactly a brain bender of a challenge to bash one rock against another until it flakes.

NPR reports:

A stone tool found in the sand has always been considered the handiwork of early humans and their ancestors. But a remarkable discovery in a Brazilian forest suggests that might not be so.

Scientists saw a group of capuchin monkeys making stone flakes, an important type of early tool. It’s not clear the monkeys knew what they were making, but nonetheless, it might prompt researchers to be more cautious when they come across ancient sites where similar tools are usually attributed to early humans.

In the interest of precision I would go further and say that it doesn’t look in the least like the monkey in the video intends to create a cutting tool, or use the resulting flakes as cutting tools. The little fellow just wants to break open the rocks and lick the insides. And we do have strong evidence that stone flakes in the distant past were used as cutting tools by hominids.

At the same time, we already know of birds that employ sophisticated techniques in the construction of impressive nests, and beavers that build clever dams, so clearly ordinary animals can do some pretty impressive, long-range creative work without anything remotely approaching human mental capacity. If beavers and birds can do these things, then we shouldn’t make too much of an archeological site that contains stone flakes, even ones that were clearly used as tools.

A scientist friend nicely summarized the significance of the capuchin monkey discovery.

The hominid fossil record is full of stone tools which were allegedly made by hominids that were slowly evolving the ability to make complex technology. This find shows that monkeys can make similar stone tools.

So now, when we find those sorts of artifacts, they might not be evidence of early pre-human hominids evolving the ability to make complex tools. They might just be evidence of monkeys playing with rocks.

In other words, these stone tools might not show some upward evolution technological progress, but just an uninteresting evolutionary dead-end.

I’ll let that be the last word.