Clever Apes: Toolmakers

June 28, 2011

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A chimp at the Lincoln Park Zoo uses a stick to fish for food.

As we human beings have come up against our limits throughout history, we’ve managed to invent tools that can overcome them. Using tools we can fly, restart a human heart, photograph galaxies and amoebae. Tools are so central to our humanity that we used to think they defined us: “Man the Toolmaker.”

That notion began to unravel in the 1960s, as Jane Goodall discovered that humans aren’t the only clever apes around. Chimps, too, make and use tools. It was an existential turning point: As Goodall sponsor Louis Leakey famously responded, “Now we have to redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

That line has only gotten fuzzier since then, thanks in part to work done on chimps and gorillas at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. In this installment of Clever Apes we’ll meet a few of these crafty primates, and consider what the tools can teach us about the toolmakers.

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Then we’ll pivot to another tool that probes – in this case, one that analyzes art (and, it turns out, artists). It’s an X-Ray fluorescence spectrometer, but we prefer to call it the “science gun.” We see it in action at the Art Institute of Chicago, thanks to conservation scientist Francesca Casadio.

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Francesca Casadio trains her 'science gun' on a 1000-year-old Chinese sculpture.