Kanzi the bonobo chimp learns to create tools by himself – repeating humanity’s first steps towards civilisation
- Chimpanzee who has grown up with humans and loves fires learns to create flints and scrapers to get to hidden food
A world-famous bonobo chimp known for his skill at sign-language has taken one step closer to humanity – by learning to create tools.
The 31-year-old, Kanzi, is able to understand and communicate with humans and is believed to understand around 500 words – 30 to 40 of which he uses on a daily basis.
Now he has stunned researchers at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, by creating his own tools during a mission to extract food from a container.
Tool-building: Kanzi the bonobo picks up one of the logs, which contains treats inside, and sets to work scraping it open
New Scientist reports: ‘Kanzi the bonobo continues to impress.
‘Not content with learning sign language or making up ‘words’ for things like banana or juice, he now seems capable of making stone tools on a par with the efforts of early humans.’
The tool-making was part of an exercise devised by Eviatar Nevo, of the University of Haifa in Israel.
He and his colleagues placed food inside a sealed log, mimicking marrow locked inside long bones, and then watched as Kanzi tried to tackle the problem.
His companion bonobo went for the tried-and-trusted approach: repeatedly smashing the log on the ground in order to get to the food within.
But Kanzi took a different approach, building the tools early man is believed to have come up with tens of thousands of years ago.
While his companion only succeeded in cracking two logs, Kanzi managed to get his way inside 24 of the treat-filled logs, using a variety of methods.
New Scientist reports: ‘Kanzi used the tools he created to come at the log in a variety of ways: inserting sticks into seams in the log, throwing projectiles at it, and employing stone flints as choppers, drills, and scrapers. In the end, he got food out of 24 logs, while his companion managed just two.’
Kanzi also used flakes to unearth buried food, after making the tool by chipping off bits of stone
The choppers and scrapers devised by Kanzi are believed to be similar to the tools men created as they marched towards civilisation, fuelling a debate as to whether tool-making is the mark of modern human culture – or if it something innate in other species as well.
Kanzi and his companion had both been taught to break flint flakes in the 1990s using a stone and a hammer, but the rest of the tool-creation appears to be Kanzi’s initiative alone.
Kanzi is one of eight bonobos in the care of Dr Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, one of the world’s leading experts in ape behaviour and language.
He had previously been taught to light matches and create fires.
Dr Savage-Rumbaugh, of the Great Ape Trust, in Des Moines, Iowa, adds: ‘Kanzi makes fire because he wants to.
He used to watch the film Quest For Fire when he was very young which was about early man struggling to control fire.
He watched it spellbound over and over hundreds of times.
‘He was also fascinated by the camp fires his keepers made to cook food.
‘And he was encouraged to interact with humans and copy them.
‘At the age of five, he was making small piles of bone dry sticks.
‘He was taught to use matches, a skill he picked up quickly.
‘There’s something eerie about watching Kanzi strike a match.
‘The way he then holds the flame – taking care not to burn himself – is remarkably human.’
Kanzi, who weighs 12st, is the brightest of the apes at the Great Ape Trust.
With two other apes at the centre, he uses paper keyboards to communicate with Dr Savage-Rumbaugh and fellow primatologist Liz Pugh.
In conversation with the researchers he points to symbols, known as lexigrams, on the keyboards representing different words.
He has learnt to ‘say’ around 500 words through the keyboard, and understands 3,000 spoken words.
Bonobos are one of the most endangered species and there are around 10,000 to 50,000 left in the wild, all in Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo.
They share 98 to 99 per cent of their DNA with us.
New Scientist speculated: ‘Do Kanzi’s skills translate to all bonobos? It’s hard to say.
‘The abilities of animals like Alex the parrot, who could purportedly count to six, and Betty the crow, who crafted a hook out of wire, sometimes prompt claims about the intelligence of an entire species.
But since these animals are raised in unusual environments where they frequently interact with humans, their cases may be too singular to extrapolate their talents to their brethren.’