Kanzi the Bonobo Continues to Catch Us Up

I’m always fond of stories involving animals exhibiting highly intelligent behvaiour. In some cases the observed cognitive ability is just an illusion. Like this ‘talking’ dog who appears to be trying to say ‘Hello’ to me or this ‘passive aggressive’ blue whale who looks like he’s pretending to be Jaws to scare the people on a boat. But there are other cases that seem to be much more promising as examples of animals engaged in genuinely clever behaviour.

Kanzi is a male bonobo, extensively studied by primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who first sprang to prominence when he learnt to communicate using keyboard lexigrams. To date he’s learnt over 200 English words, pointing to the sign on the screen that relates to an English word, and even making accompanying vocalisations. He’s also learnt some American Sign Language. It appears that he has significant linguistic aptitude including understanding novel sentences.

But now Kanzi has learnt a new skill. He had been taught, way back in the 90s, to knap flint tools. But recently he’s been using this skill to solve a problem. The researchers simulated marrow trapped in bone by sealing food inside logs. Kanzi was able to fashion a variety of tools such as scrapers, drillers, and choppers to break into the wood and get at the meals.

It’s been suggested that this could change our understanding of the origins of human civilization. If bonobos can do stone tool use then maybe this skill was present prior to the Homo genus arriving on the scene. Although Kanzi was taught quite extensively how to use the tools so it’s by no means clear that this could have arisen naturally. Either for bonobos or in a wider range of species including the related species that were around in the run-up to the Homo genus evolving.

Whatever the case, Kanzi certainly seems to be catching up with humans. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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