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Proof that chimpanzee mothers teach their children how to use tools

Comparatively speaking, as far as making tools for food consumption and the evolution of teaching your kids to fish goes, humans choose teaching their kids to use a ready-made spoon first. Learning how to tie your own flies and cast a pole comes later.

Celebrating the inaugural spoon to mouth voyage as an early human milestone is immediately video documented, saved for future viewing, and instantly shared simultaneously for the world to see on multiple social media platforms.

Unless, of course, you are a Chimpanzee.

According to new research from anthropologists at Washington University in St. Louis, the first documented evidence of wild chimpanzee mothers teaching their chimp kids to use tools has been captured on video cameras in the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo!

From this new documentation, scientists have learned that the first tool you teach your Chimp kids to use is not a spoon. Not as far removed from the silver bowled human artifacts as one would think, a Chimpanzee kid learns to use a very specific herb species as a feeding tool, not unlike a human uses a spoon…and it works. However, the process of teaching your chimp kid to eat starts with tool location, on the spot repurposing and learning the art of properly casting your hand-made sustainably sourced spoon into a mound of living and oh so yummy raw-food. Termites!

“Wild chimpanzees are exceptional tool users, but in contrast to humans, there has been little evidence to date that adult chimpanzees teach youngsters tool skills,” said Stephanie Musgrave, the study’s first author, an anthropology graduate student in Arts & Sciences. According to Musgrave, mother chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle, where cameras were located, teach their offspring how to use specific herb species to make fishing probes.

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Chimp kids off the ole’ block dive into this very different epicurean pond with gusto. Unlike most human kids, they go fishing for their own breakfast. The very specific and apparently herbalicious fishing tool entices crunchy termites packed with protein to crawl up the stem. The brush like edges of this jungle book spoon keep termites ‘on the hook’ until it’s licked clean and ready for another dip.

Published online Oct. 11 in the journal Scientific Reports, the study is based on research conducted in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Max Planck Institute and Franklin and Marshall College. The findings have important implications for the evolution of teaching.

“It is easy for us to take for granted the importance of sharing information to learn complex skills, as it is ubiquitous in humans,” said Crickette Sanz, associate professor of biological anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University and co-author of the study. “Our research shows that the evolutionary origins of this behavior are likely rooted in contexts where particular skills are too challenging for an individual to invent on their own.”

Study findings implicate identifying the cognitive underpinnings of teaching. In humans, teaching generally involves understanding others’ abilities and the intention to help them learn. In this study, chimpanzee mothers both anticipated the youngsters’ need for a tool and devised strategies to reduce the effort necessary to provide them.

Musgrave noted chimpanzees are exceptional among animals for the remarkable propensity to make and use tools. “Using video footage from remote camera traps placed at termite nests in the chimpanzees’ home range, we were able to observe and quantify how sharing tools affected those who relinquished their tools as well as those who received them.”

Author: Suzanne Johnson


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