Primate archaeology evolves


Since its inception, archaeology has traditionally focused exclusively on humans and our direct ancestors. However, recent years have seen archaeological techniques applied to material evidence left behind by non-human animals. Here, we review advances made by the most prominent field investigating past non-human tool use: primate archaeology. This field combines survey of wild primate activity areas with ethological observations, excavations and analyses that allow the reconstruction of past primate behaviour. Because the order Primates includes humans, new insights into the behavioural evolution of apes and monkeys also can be used to better interrogate the record of early tool use in our own, hominin, lineage. This work has recently doubled the set of primate lineages with an excavated archaeological record, adding Old World macaques and New World capuchin monkeys to chimpanzees and humans, and it has shown that tool selection and transport, and discrete site formation, are universal among wild stone-tool-using primates. It has also revealed that wild capuchins regularly break stone tools in a way that can make them difficult to distinguish from simple early hominin tools. Ultimately, this research opens up opportunities for the development of a broader animal archaeology, marking the end of archaeology’s anthropocentric era.

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Fig. 1: Locations and examples of stone tool use by wild non-human primates and early hominins.
Fig. 2: Archaeologically excavated stone tools used in percussive activities.


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Funding was received from European Research Council Starting Grant no. 283959 (Primate Archaeology) awarded to M.H.

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M.H., R.A.H.-A., L.V.L. and T.P. conceived the paper. M.H. wrote the paper, with contributions from all other authors. T.P. prepared the figures, with assistance from M.H.

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Correspondence to Michael Haslam.

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Haslam, M., Hernandez-Aguilar, R.A., Proffitt, T. et al. Primate archaeology evolves. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1431–1437 (2017).

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