The maker not the tool: The cognitive significance of great ape manual skills

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Tool-use by chimpanzees has attracted disproportionate attention among primatologists, because of an understandable wish to understand the evolutionary origins of hominin tool use. In archaeology and paleoanthropology, a focus on made-objects is inevitable: there is nothing else to study. However, it is evidently object-directed manual skills, enabling the objects to be made, that are critical in understanding the evolutionary origins of stone-tool manufacture. In this chapter I review object-directed manual skills in living great apes, making comparison where possible with hominin abilities that can be inferred from the archaeological record. To this end, ‘translations’ of terminology between the research traditions are offered. Much of the evidence comes from observation of apes gathering plants that present physical problems for handling and consumption, in addition to the more patchy data from tool use in captivity and the field. The living great apes, like ourselves, build up novel hierarchical structures involving regular sequences of elementary actions, showing co-ordinated manual role differentiation, in modular organizations with the option of iterating subroutines. Further, great apes appear able to use imitation of skilled practitioners as one source of information for this process, implying some ability to ‘see’ below the surface level of action and understand the motor planning of other individual; however, that process does not necessarily involve understanding cause-and-effect or the intentions of other individuals. Finally I consider whether a living non-human ape could effectively knap stone, and if not, what competence is lacking.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStone Knapping : the necessary conditions for a uniquely hominid behaviour McDonald Institute monograph series
EditorsV Roux, B Bril
PublisherMcdonald Institute
Publication statusPublished - 2005


  • tool use
  • apes
  • primatology
  • cognition
  • imitation
  • mind
  • plan
  • formation
  • intention


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