Studying the origins of perishable technology

Congratulations to Primate Models Lab members Alejandra Pascual-Garrido and Katarina Almeida-Warren on the publication of Archaeology of the Perishable: Ecological Constraints and Cultural Variants in Chimpanzee Termite Fishing. Published in Current Anthropology, this milestone comparative piece on the newly emerging archaeology of the perishable reports on the application of archaeological methods to investigate raw material procurement for termite-fishing tools by three chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) populations in Tanzania: Gombe, Issa, and Mahale. With Archaeology of the Perishable, Pascual-Garrido and Almeida-Warren provide a new framework for reconstructing previously overlooked aspects of hominin behaviour, shedding light on the origins of technology and advancing the field beyond the current lithic bias to provide a more holistic approach to the study of technological origins. With commentaries from a number of senior researchers in the field, including Lab Head Susana Carvalho, the article makes significant contributions and marks an exciting new avenue for further research.

raw material sourcing for termite fishing tools by wild chimpanzees

Figure description: Raw material sourcing for termite-fishing tools by wild chimpanzees: 1. Tool material sourcing from the source plant; 2. Raw material transport to the tool-use site (termite mound); 3. Tool manufacture and use; 4. Removal scars on source plants after chimpanzee tool material extraction (left: bark removal; right: twig removal). Illustration by Luis da Silva. Shared with permission from the authors.

Selection and transport of materials for stone tools is ubiquitous throughout our evolutionary history, but we know little about the behaviours associated to the use of plant technologies. Studies of chimpanzees, our close relatives, can provide insights into the ephemeral technologies that existed but remain obscure in the archaeological record. The authors pioneer the use of Primate Archaeology methods to investigate raw material sourcing for termite-fishing tools by three chimpanzee communities in Tanzania (Gombe; Issa; Mahale).

Termite fishing involves: raw material sourcing and transport, tool manufacture and use. The extraction of raw material produces scars on the plants – archaeological traces that allow the identification of plant sources and help uncover patterns of raw material use.

Strategies differed between the three communities according to the environment, with Issa chimpanzees living in a more open and drier habitat using sources more intensively, and their use decreasing with distance to the tool use site. Despite similar raw materials available at all sites, Issa & Mahale chimpanzees only used bark for tools, while at Gombe various materials were employed, suggesting that exploitation strategies may also be shaped by cultural processes. This techno-cultural variation & flexible exploitation strategies for perishable technologies by wild chimpanzees parallels behaviours associated to the use of stone tools by our earliest ancestors, suggesting a much deeper origin than commonly thought.

This research was made possible with support from: research assistants in Gombe, Issa & Mahale, local Tanzanian institutions (TAWIRI, TANAPA, COSTECH), field sites (Greater Mahale Ecosystem Research and Conservation (GMERC), The Jane Goodall Institute, and the Mahale Mountains Chimpanzee Research Project); and funding from: The Leverhulme Trust, The Boise Trust Fund, and the John Fell Fund, University of Oxford.

Read also the commentaries by S. Carvalho (University of Oxford), W. Chu, F. D'Errico & E. Backwell, C. Hicks, B. McGrew, C. Sanz and S. Musgrave, F. Stewart, and M. Nakamura: