Before Jane Goodall's discoveries in the 1960s, it had been widely asserted/believed that Man was the only animal that made and used tools.

However, Frans de Waal (2016) states that in 1735,

Ape tool use was well known and not the least bit controversial

Is the above statement true?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 27, 2022 at 12:37

3 Answers 3


Later than 1735, Charles Darwin's Descent of Man (1871) mentions tool use, in the paragraph below.

Although it documents observations of tool use by primates, it begins with a statement about (then) contempory belief. So although it was known, it does not support the idea that it was "well known and not the least bit controversial", and Darwin's writings were tremendously controversial at the time (and even now, for some).

It has often been said that no animal uses any tool; but the chimpanzee in a state of nature cracks a native fruit, somewhat like a walnut, with a stone. Rengger easily taught an American monkey thus to break open hard palm-nuts, and afterwards of its own accord it used stones to open other kinds of nuts, as well as boxes. It thus also removed the soft rind of fruit that had a disagreeable flavour. Another monkey was taught to open the lid of a large box with a stick, and afterwards it used the stick as a lever to move heavy bodies; and I have myself seen a young orang put a stick into a crevice, slip his hand to the other end, and use it in the proper manner as a lever. In the cases just mentioned stones and sticks were employed as implements; but they are likewise used as weapons. Brehm states, on the authority of the well-known traveller Schimper, that in Abyssinia when the baboons belonging to one species (C. gelada) descend in troops from the mountains to plunder the fields, they sometimes encounter troops of another species (C. hamadryas), and then a fight ensues. The Geladas roll down great stones, which the Hamadryas try to avoid, and then, both species, making a great uproar, rush furiously against each other. Brehm, when accompanying the Duke of Coburg-Gotha, aided in an attack with fire-arms on a troop of baboons in the pass of Mensa in Abyssinia. The baboons in return rolled so many stones down the mountain, some as large as a man’s head, that the attackers had to beat a hasty retreat; and the pass was actually for a time closed against the caravan. It deserves notice that these baboons thus acted in concert. Mr. Wallace on three occasions saw female orangs, accompanied by their young, “breaking off branches and the great spiny fruit of the Durian tree, with every appearance of rage; causing such a shower of missiles as effectually kept us from approaching too near the tree.”

My bolding. Reproduced from Project Gutenberg

There are references to primates in captivity being taught to use a tool, but that is rather different.

  • 4
    A small problem for 'later than Linne' & your 'does not support the idea that it was "well known"' emerges, once you read the entire Waals-passage in context. His point is exactly that after Linné monkeys were downgraded to 'no-tool-apps', only for that tool-usage to be "rediscovered" (by human observers)? A ref from before 1735 might be needed? Apr 18, 2022 at 19:50
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    @LangLаngС is right here. The author is asserting a timeline: during and before 1735 tool use in apes was not controversial; after 1735 and before the 1960s tool use in apes was controversial; and after the 1960s tool use in apes stopped being controversial again. The question is asking if it's true that in 1735 it was uncontroversial that apes used tools, which relates to the first part of the author's timeline. I don't see how showing tool use was controversial in 1871, during the second part of the timeline, either disagrees with the author's assertion or answers the question being asked. Apr 19, 2022 at 10:04
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    @combinatorics if so, the question should be modified to show that. As it stands, it only questions the idea that before Jane Goodall's work, tool use was not a commonly held belief, with one particular historical claim to assert it, a single sentence from the early work. Apr 19, 2022 at 10:11
  • I agree the question should ideally be modified to reflect accurately what the author is claiming, and I've left a comment under the question seeking clarification. If the question isn't modified to clarify this then, since skeptics exists to test the veracity of notable claims and no-one notable, certainly not Frans de Waal, is making the claim that "(for all time) before Jane Goodall's work tool use among apes was not a controversial idea" (in fact, Frans de Waal is specifically claiming that this is false), the question should be closed as non-notable. Apr 19, 2022 at 11:50
  • 7
    The question seems quite clear: "Was ape tool use "well known and not the least bit controversial" in 1735?" (emphasis mine). So an answer referring to dates so long after 1735 isn't answering the question.
    – terdon
    Apr 19, 2022 at 13:42

When Jane Goodall first witnessed Gombe chimpanzee David Greybeard fishing for termites by manipulating blades of grass in 1960, the line between humans and other animals suddenly became blurry. Tool use was no longer uniquely human, leading Dr. Louis Leakey, Jane’s mentor, to famously say, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.”

I remember that the discovery of chimpanzees making and using crude tools was considered revolutionary back in the 1960s.

I note that if enough biologists and others remembered what they read in various sources they would not have been so shocked.

Charles Darwin wrote in Descent of Man in 1871:

The tamed elephants in India are well known to break off branches of trees and use them to drive away the flies; and this same act has been observed in an elephant in a state of nature.

Darwin provided a reference to a publication from 1871.

A few years ago I read online a 19th century book for "young future scientists" - kids - which I think was about elephants. And it mentioned that elephants were observed to take twigs in their trunks and use them to clean gunk out of glands in the sides of their heads.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter III, "The Black Gate is Closed" has a discussion of oliphaunts, the prehistoric elephants of Harad. Sam says:

...But I've heard talk of the big folk down away in the Sunlands. Swertings we call 'em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts, 'tis said, when they fight. They put towers and houses on the oliphaunts backs and all; and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another...

And I don't know if Tolkien read somewhere about elephants throwing things, but elephants have been observed throwing stuff.

And elephants have been observed performing those and many other types of tool use in the decades following Goodall's discovery: Weapons, Ear Cleaners, and Fly Swatters: Elephant Tool Use

So elephants are one example, out of many, of how unobservant biologists would have been to be as shocked by the discovery of chimpanzee tool use as I seem to remember them being.

  • 5
    What is the reference to Tolkien doing on a science site?
    – gerrit
    Apr 19, 2022 at 9:40
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    @gerrit The question is about knowledge of animal tool use before Goodall's observation in 1963. Lord of the Rings has been read by millions. Tolkien either thought of the concept of elephants throwing things by himself, or else read somewhere about elephants throwing things. Real elephants do sometimes throw things as the linked article mentions. Thus I thought that the reason for mentioning Tolkien would be obvsious to everyone. Apr 19, 2022 at 16:46
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    @M.A.Golding Tolkien also had talking trees... Apr 19, 2022 at 17:47
  • Birds use tools too, like as mentioned in the examples in this article and this article. So it seems unusual if apes, having larger brains, had never been seen to use any tools.
    – alec
    Jun 10, 2022 at 23:32
  • I buffed up the Darwin quote, and was much happier with it... when realised... 1871 is a long while after 1735. The question is not just about 1963.
    – Oddthinking
    Aug 27, 2022 at 16:54

The author contradicts themselves in the very same paragraph - or alludes to the fact that there was controversy.

With regard to technical skills, the same thing happened despite the fact that ancient gravures and paintings commonly depicted apes with a walking cane or some other instrument, most memorably in Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Natura in 1735. Ape tool use was well known and not the least bit controversial at the time. The artists probably put tools in the apes’ hands to make them look more humanlike, hence for exactly the opposite reason anthropologists in the twentieth century elevated tools to a sign of brainpower. From then on, the technology of apes was subjected to scrutiny and doubt, ridicule even, while ours was held up as proof of mental preeminence. It is against this backdrop that the discovery (or rediscovery) of ape tool use in the wild was so shocking. In their attempts to downplay its importance, I have heard anthropologists suggest that perhaps chimpanzees learned how to use tools from humans, as if this would be any more likely than having them develop tools on their own. This proposal obviously goes back to a time when imitation had not yet been declared uniquely human. It is hard to keep all those claims consistent. When Leakey suggested that we must either call chimpanzees human, redefine what it is to be human, or redefine tools, scientists predictably embraced the second option. Redefining man will never go out of fashion, and every new characterization will be greeted with “Yeah! That’s the ticket!”"

  • 11
    The "from then on" right before your second bolded phrase means "beginning in the 20th century".
    – hobbs
    Apr 19, 2022 at 5:50

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