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Wild monkeys flake stone tools

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Our understanding of the emergence of technology shapes how we view the origins of humanity1,2. Sharp-edged stone flakes, struck from larger cores, are the primary evidence for the earliest stone technology3. Here we show that wild bearded capuchin monkeys (Sapajus libidinosus) in Brazil deliberately break stones, unintentionally producing recurrent, conchoidally fractured, sharp-edged flakes and cores that have the characteristics and morphology of intentionally produced hominin tools. The production of archaeologically visible cores and flakes is therefore no longer unique to the human lineage, providing a comparative perspective on the emergence of lithic technology. This discovery adds an additional dimension to interpretations of the human Palaeolithic record, the possible function of early stone tools, and the cognitive requirements for the emergence of stone flaking.

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Figure 1: Wild bearded capuchin SoS percussion, Serra da Capivara National Park, Brazil.
Figure 2: Examples of flaked stones from capuchin SoS percussion.
Figure 3: Examples of passive hammers from capuchin SoS percussion.

Change history

  • 15 December 2016

    Extended Data Table 2 was replaced, to include the missing five final lines.


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The study was funded by a European Research Council Starting Investigator Grant (#283959) to M.H. and São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) awards to T.F. (#2013/05219-0) and E.B.O. (#2014/04818-0). Support for fieldwork and analysis was provided by N. Guidon and G. Daltrini Felice of FUMDHAM and University College London (ERC Starting Grant #283366). We thank R. Fonseca de Oliveira for excavation coordination, M. Gumert, R. Mora and A. Arroyo for comments, and A. Theodoropoulou for artefact illustrations. Fieldwork at SCNP was approved by Brazilian environmental protection agencies (IBAMA/ICMBio 37615-2).

Author information




M.H. and T.F. observed and recorded the capuchin behaviour, collected lithic material and directed excavations at Serra da Capivara National Park. T.P. conducted the technological analysis. T.P., L.V.L., I.D.L.T. and M.H. discussed the implications of the results. T.P. wrote the paper and supplementary online content with contributions from L.V.L., T.F., E.B.O., I.D.L.T. and M.H. T.P generated all figures models and video content, using data recorded by M.H. and T.P.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Tomos Proffitt or Michael Haslam.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Reviewer Information Nature thanks S. Carvalho and H. Roche for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Archaeological excavation of wild capuchin SoS percussion sites, Serra da Capivara National Park.

a, Lasca OIT1 excavation, each square is 1 × 1 m. b, The approach to Lasca OIT2, which is located to the right of the conglomerate cliff face. c, Lasca OIT2 excavation, note the low conglomerate ridge to the left, on which capuchins were observed whilst performing SoS activities. Scale bar, 30 cm (see also Fig. 1).

Extended Data Figure 2 Examples of active hammers.

a, Crushing impacts on multiple surfaces of an active hammer. b, Examples of impact points and associated circular hertzian fractures on the surface of an active hammer. Scale bars are 5 cm, except for inset scale bars, which are 2 mm.

Extended Data Figure 3 Examples of SoS flaked hammer-stones.

a, c, Flake detachment following a transverse active hammer fracture. b, Unintentional radial reduction of flaked hammer-stone. df, Examples of complete active hammers with scars of accidental flakes. Scale bars are 5 cm.

Extended Data Figure 4 Refits of flaked hammer-stones showing the repeated detachment of unidirectional flakes.

a, Refit Set 1 (artefact numbers JC13 and JF7). b, Refit Set 2 (artefact numbers 225102a and 225102b). c, Refit Set 3 (artefact numbers 224881a and 224881b). d, Refit Set 4 (artefact numbers JF3 and JC5). A, A2, B and C are designated planes on each refit, corresponding to descriptions found in Supplementary Information. Scale bars are 5 cm.

Extended Data Figure 5 Refits of flaked hammer-stones showing the repeated detachment of unidirectional flakes and continued use of broken active hammers.

a, Refit Set 5 (artefact numbers JC11, JC12, JF23 and JF1). b, Refit Set 6 (artefact numbers JC6, JF2, JF14, JF4 and JF8) (See also Supplementary Video 2). c, Refit Set 7 (artefact numbers JC4 and JC10). A, A2, B, B2, C and C2 are designated planes on each refit, corresponding to descriptions found in Supplementary Information. Scale bars are 5 cm.

Extended Data Figure 6 Examples of complete flakes.

af, Examples of complete flakes detached during capuchin SoS percussion. Scale bars are in cm. Scale bars are 5 cm.

Extended Data Table 1 Absolute and relative frequencies and total weights (g) of technological categories identified in each Capuchin SoS assemblage, Serra da Capivara National Park
Extended Data Table 2 Dimensional data for all artefacts from Capuchin SoS assemblages and a comparison with Pliocene–Pleistocene hominin artefacts

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains technological analysis of capuchin stone on stone percussive tools and Supplementary References. (PDF 235 kb)

Video footage of stone on stone percussive behaviour in wild capuchins, Serra da Capivara National Park

Time stamp 00:10 – Use of quartzite hammerstone refitted in Refit Set 6. Time stamp 00:19 and 02:30 – Examples of hammerstone fracture during use. Time stamp 03:09 – Placement of detached flake on a passive hammer in a behaviour closely resembling hominin bipolar knapping. (MP4 28986 kb)

Capuchin stone on stone assemblage, Serra da Capivara National Park

Video of 3D model and reconstruction of reduction sequence for Refit Set 6, indicating the recurrent detachment of invasive flakes from a single hammerstone and examples of other flaked hammerstones and flakes. (MP4 30202 kb)

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Proffitt, T., Luncz, L., Falótico, T. et al. Wild monkeys flake stone tools. Nature 539, 85–88 (2016).

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