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Comparing Chimpanzee and Hominid Tool Production Helps Build the Biblical Case for Human Origins

New work by primatologists associated with the Great Ape Trust and Bonobo Hope Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa, observed two chimpanzees manufacturing tools from flint, modifying them for task-specific activities. This and other behaviors observed from great apes in both captivity and the wild align closely with the behavior of hominids, such as Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and even Neanderthals. Though interpreted by many in the scientific community from an evolutionary perspective, recent observations of chimpanzee behavior support RTB’s biblical human origins model and make it increasingly difficult to view hominid behavior as representing an intermediary between the great apes and modern humans.

Comparisons are relative. For example, I don’t consider myself to be particularly wealthy. And I’m not—at least when compared to other people who live in the United States. But if you compare my possessions with those of someone who lives in almost any other part of the world, I am rich beyond many people’s wildest dreams.

Likewise, comparisons are relative when it comes to the behavior of the hominids and of human beings (anatomically modern humans). Recent work on chimpanzee behavior reported by scientists from Israel and the United States highlights the importance of keeping this point in mind when interpreting the archaeological record associated with the hominids.1

These researchers observed Kanzi (male) and Pan-Banisha (female)—chimps housed at the Great Ape Trust and Bonobo Hope Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa—making and using a much wider range of stone tools than had been previously documented in either captivity or the wild. Chimpanzees in the wild use stones to hammer open nuts. But Kanzi and Pan-Banisha showed an ability to manufacture stone tools for task-specific purposes.

In the most recent study, Kanzi and Pan-Banisha were challenged to gain access to food sealed in the interior of a log or buried under piles of various materials. Having been taught by researchers to knap flint flakes by striking the flint with a hammer stone, the chimpanzees manufactured tools from flint by direct percussion. They produced tools suited for either breaking open the log or digging, depending on what the circumstance demanded.

The video below shows Kanzi in action.

Interpreting Hominid Tool Construction

Many people regard the remarkable behavior displayed by creatures like H. habilis, H. erectus, and Neanderthals as evidence that human beings’ sophisticated behavior must have an evolutionary origin. We manufacture and use tools. The hominids manufactured and used tools. Therefore, our ability to make tools must have evolved from our more primitive forbearers—at least according to reasoning steeped in the evolutionary paradigm. Hominid behavior, moreover, represents an intermediate stage in the evolution of our own advanced cognitive capabilities.

Tools made and employed by H. habilis, H. erectus, and Neanderthals are crude compared to those made by the first modern humans. Furthermore, tools made by Neanderthals show a little more advancement than those produced by H. erectus, and H. erectus’ tools show a little more sophistication than those made by H. habilis. In light of this pattern, it is tempting to view the archaeological record as a trajectory from crude, cumbersome behavior of hominids toward the advanced cognitive abilities possessed by modern humans.

Yet the archaeological record indicates that modern human behavior was not just a little more sophisticated than the hominids’. Rather, as discussed in my book Who Was Adam?, modern human behavior was dramatically distinct. (See this recent article for more information on the archaeological support for a biblical view of human origins.) For example, symbolic behavior appears for the first time and is uniquely associated with modern humans. No other hominid, including Neanderthals, displayed symbolism. According to researchers Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey Schwartz, “Among Neanderthals, all claimed instances of early symbolism are strongly disputed and for Homo erectus, there are no specific claims of this kind at all.”2 They also point out that3

Unusual though Homo sapiens may be morphologically, it is undoubtedly our remarkable cognitive qualities that most strikingly demarcate us from all other extant species. They are certainly what give us our strong subjective sense of being qualitatively different. And they are ultimately traceable to our symbolic capacity. Human beings alone, it seems, mentally dissect the world into a multitude of discrete symbols, and combine and recombine those symbols in their minds to produce hypotheses of alternative possibilities…Symbolic and nonsymbolic cognitive states are clearly separated by a qualitative gulf: the former is not simply an extension of the later, a little bit more of the same.

Comparing Chimps to Hominids
The gap between modern humans and the hominids becomes that much more stark when hominid behavior is compared to that of the great apes, such as Kanzi and Pan-Banisha. As discussed in a previous article, primatologists have observed wild chimpanzees showing remarkable behaviors, such as:
•    Use of stone tools
•    Fabrication of spears from tree branches
•    Manufacturing of tools to extract termites from nests
•    Occupation of caves
•    Mourning for their dead
•    Use of plants for medicinal purposes

The two videos below depict some of these behaviors.

Considering the tool-making abilities of chimpanzees, both wild and captive, hominid behavior, including that of Neanderthals, doesn’t seem very remarkable. In fact, hominid behavior appears much more closely aligned with great ape activities than modern human behavior. The researchers who conducted the study of Kanzi and Pan-Banisha observed that “present-day Pan [chimpanzees] exhibit technological competencies formerly only assigned to the Homo genus.”4 (I’ve written before about new insights into cave artifacts and burial sites that have forced paleoanthropologists to revise their view of Neanderthal behavior.)

According to RTB’s biblical human origins model, the advanced cognitive, symbolic behavior associated with modern humans stems from the image of God. We would argue that the patterns observed in the archaeological record support the idea that humans alone bear God’s image. Moreover, our model regards the hominids as animals that lack this quality and, consequently, were incapable of engaging in symbolic behavior.

Recent observations of chimpanzees in captivity and in the wild further support the RTB model. In spite of their fascinating, even remarkable behavior, it’s clear that these creatures do not engage in symbolic behavior (and from RTB’s perspective, do not possess the image of God). Hominid behavior, recorded in the archaeological record, and great ape behavior share the same degree of sophistication. In light of this comparison, it is becoming increasingly difficult to view hominid activity as a stepping-stone to that of modern humans’.

  1. Itai Roffman et al., “Stone Tool Production and Utilization by Bonobo-Chimpanzees (Pan paniscus)” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 109 (September 4, 2012): 14500–3.
  2. Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey H. Schwartz, “Evolution of the Genus Homo,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (May 2009): 81.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Itai Roffman et al., “Stone Tool Production and Utilization”: 14500–3.