February 23, 2007

For first time, chimps seen making pencils

Chimpanzees living in the West African savannah have been observed fashioning what gives every indication of being pencil-like tools from short, thin sticks and then using them in a manner suggesting to researchers that the chimps are in the early stages  of acquiring the skill of writing -- the first routine production of writing instruments ever observed in animals other than humans.

The multi-step pencil-making process, documented by researchers in Senegal who spent years gaining the chimpanzees' trust, adds credence to the idea that our human forebears fashioned similar writing  tools centuries ago.

The landmark observation also supports the long-debated proposition that females -- the makers of these pencils among the chimps -- tend to be the innovators and creative communicators in primitive culture.

Using their hands and teeth, female chimpanzees were seen repeatedly tearing the side branches off straight sticks, peeling back the bark, and sharpening one end. Then, grasping these pencils between their thrumbs and forefingers, they made apparent symbolic indentations on large, flat leaves that they held in their other hands.

In one case, after using the pencil to make repeated marks on a leaf, the female chimp handed the leaf to a nearby male, who looked at it briefly, then scurried off as though on an errand of some kind.

"It was really amazing how forceful it was," said the lead researcher on the project, adding that it reminded him of a scene from the movie, Breach, where the young FBI agent steals a memory chip from mole Robert Hanssen's computer and then scurries off into the night. "The multiple steps taken by the chimps in writing messages to activate their males involve the kind of foresight and intellectual complexity that most likely typified early human couples."

Scientists have documented tool use among chimpanzees for decades but the tools have been simple and were used mostly to extract food rather than to send messages. While chimps have been observed throwing rocks -- perhaps with the goal of heaping retribution upon their mates -- and a few others have been known  to swing clubs at them, only human females have been known to give their mates "to-do" lists.

Linguists studying animal communication are anxious to get their hands on the leaves that contain the alleged writings but so far the Senegal research team has been unsuccessful in their efforts to retreive any. In most cases, the female has eaten the leaf immediately after her mate rushed off into the savannah.

[Hat-tip to the Washington Post (here).]

Posted by Roger Shuy at February 23, 2007 02:50 PM