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Primate stone tool use for paleoanthropologists

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This talk examines recent findings on wild non-human primate (NHP) stone tool use, looking for commonalities that may also apply to early hominin lithic technology. It raises the following discussion points: (i) not all populations or subspecies within a ‘stone-tool-using’ species use stone tools; (ii) lithic tools typically play the role of force amplifiers in the primate tool kit, while other materials (sticks, leaves, etc.) play complimentary roles; (iii) pounding stone size usually relates directly to the hardness of processed foods; (iv) cultural differences in stone tool use are best seen in differing relative frequencies of tool use, or functional differences, rather than in differences of tool form between groups; (v) lithic tool use is a group activity, practiced by females, males and children alike; (vi) reliable conchoidal flake production requires direct stone-on-stone percussion, not incidental anvil or hammer breakage during other tasks; (vii) brain size, hand morphology and locomotion patterns have no clear relationship with whether a primate species uses stone tools; and (viii) all stone tool use leaves an archaeological signature, although many are hard to identify. None of the extant NHP taxa with habitual lithic technology (bearded capuchins – Sapajus libidinosus, Burmese long-tailed macaques – Macaca fascicularis aurea, and West African chimpanzees – Pan troglodytes verus) have an unbroken line of stone tool use back to their ancestor with hominins, and all have close relatives at the species or sub-species level that never use stones. Each has its own idiosyncratic technological trajectory, and choosing any one of them to model hominin tool use behavior, without considering the wider primate pattern, would therefore be unwise.

This talk is part of the Biological Anthropology Seminar Series series.

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