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When did humans inhabit South America? A study opens the door to a new hypothesis

Researchers have postulated that stone tools were produced by humans more than 24,000 years ago at the Pedra Furada site and others nearby in Brazil (EFE/CSIC)
Researchers have postulated that stone tools were produced by humans more than 24,000 years ago at the Pedra Furada site and others nearby in Brazil (EFE/CSIC)

The origin of human beings it happened in Africa, and from there there was a dispersion to Asia, Europe, Oceania, and finally to America. Of course, Christopher Columbus did not discover it, but that America was inhabited by communities of the species Homo sapiens thousands of years before they moved south of the continent. When and how was the settlement exactly in South America is still up for debate.

Some time ago it was reported that Brazil There are archaeological sites with stone tools which are the traces of humans who inhabited the area more than 32,000 years ago. However, a new study by the scientists from the Conicet of Argentina and brothers Agustín and Federico Agnolín questioned whether these tools were made by humans.

They are “artifacts” that were used by the ancestors of capuchin monkeys, the researchers postulated in a paper published in the journal Holocene.

In archeology there is a strong debate about when and how was the settlement of America.  These tools from more than 14,550 years ago were found in Florida, United States/J.  Halligan
In archeology there is a strong debate about when and how was the settlement of America. These tools from more than 14,550 years ago were found in Florida, United States/J. Halligan

American settlement is one of the hottest topics in archeology. For a long time, three groups of theories prevailed about the antiquity of the first human groups that arrived on the American continent. One of the theories is known as “Clovis, The First”, and has proposed a late peopling of America, around 11,500 years ago, according to what was said in the book. Living in Patagonia, an ancient storyby Enrique Terranova, Laura Miotti, and other authors, published with support from the Felix de Ázara Natural History Foundation.

Another theory, known as “Pre-Clovis”, posits a previous occupation. Finally, the third group proposed an even older settlement of the New World, prior to 20,000 years. In this context of debate, a group of specialists working in Brazil postulated years ago that the American population would have been much older, possibly between 20,000 and 50,000 years before the present. They pointed out that the stone tools found in the “Pedra Furada” cave and other sites in Northeast Brazil are of human origin.

But there have been recent studies in Brazil that suggest that capuchin monkeys are also capable of making and using a large number of stone tools. They can use a variety of stone and plant tools in more varied activities than any other known non-human primate, including chimpanzees.

Regarding the "tools" found in Pedra Furada, Brazil, the scientists Agustín and Federico Agnolin made a review of studies.  They postulate that the tools were generated by capuchin monkeys and not by humans/Tiago Falótico.
Regarding the “tools” found in Pedra Furada, Brazil, the scientists Agustín and Federico Agnolin made a review of studies. They postulate that the tools were generated by capuchin monkeys and not by humans/Tiago Falótico.

Agustín Agnolin is an archaeologist and researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought. His brother Federico is a paleontologist and researcher at the Laboratory of Comparative Anatomy and Evolution of Vertebrates of the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences “Bernardino Rivadavia” and the Azara Foundation in Buenos Aires.

“We get along like brothers and we always discuss papers. Among others, years ago we talked about the tools that capuchin monkeys make,” recalled the archaeologist in dialogue with Infobae. In 2017, there was an article by the scientist Stuart Fiedel, from the United States, in the journal PaleoAmerica in which he wondered if the tools found in Brazil could have been made by monkeys.

The Agnolin brothers set about reviewing all the published studies. “We postulate that the tools at Pedra Furada and other nearby sites in Brazil were the product made by capuchin monkeys to crack nuts and rocks some 50,000 years ago.

Agustín Agnolín (left) and Federico Agnolín, CONICET researchers and authors of the study.  One is dedicated to archeology and the other to paleontology/Archive
Agustín Agnolín (left) and Federico Agnolín, CONICET researchers and authors of the study. One is dedicated to archeology and the other to paleontology/Archive

“We have detected that there is no difference between the supposed human tools from 50,000 years ago and those produced by monkeys today,” he added.

Capuchin monkeys usually come close to rounded rock quarries, known as “boulder”. They select rocks to crack nuts or to dig for food. They also hit one rock with another and then lick the dust that is generated after the blows, possibly as a way to obtain minerals that are rare in their diet, ”he said.

The Pedra Furada deposit includes rounded rock quarries, known as
The Pedra Furada deposit includes rounded rock quarries, known as “boulder” / Credits: Gustavo Politis

The tools that have been found at Pedra Furada and other sites in Northeast Brazil consist of fractured pebbles, anvils, hammers, and rock fragments with jagged edges. “All these features are indistinguishable from the tools used by capuchin monkeys today,” the researcher said.

On the other hand, the deposits of Brazil do not have remains of stoves or food remains that contribute to substantiating the hypothesis of human presence more than 20,000 years ago.

“Our review of the evidence suggests that the ancient sites in Brazil do not actually belong to the first settlers of South America. They are actually the product of monkey activity. This calls into question the hypotheses that proposed an excessively ancient population of South America”, clarified paleontologist Federico Agnolín.

A capuchin monkey breaks fruit using a rock as a hammer and another as an anvil at an archaeological site with cave paintings in Northeast Brazil/Tiago Falótico.
A capuchin monkey breaks fruit using a rock as a hammer and another as an anvil at an archaeological site with cave paintings in Northeast Brazil/Tiago Falótico.

“Human settlement in this part of the American continent could have been more recent and is in line with studies that determine their arrival about 14,000 years ago,” he added.

The scientist Laura Miotti -conicet senior researcher and head of the archeology division of the Museum of La Plata that specializes in the issue of American settlement-, agrees that the evidence that has been presented to defend a human occupation in Pedra Furada and other Sites in Brazil would have also been -in reality- used by the ancestors of today’s capuchin monkeys.

Although Miotti, in dialogue with infobae, maintained that they were not “tools” made by the monkeys. “In that area of ​​Brazil, there are boulders. Nuts are struck and then the pebbles split and look like stone tools. They compared them with the instruments found and attributed to humans and they are identical. That pebble technology stayed the same from 40,000 to 12,000 years ago. It is possible that they are objects generated by monkeys and not by humans.”

The researcher added: “What the practice of capuchin monkeys with boulders demonstrates is that up to now the technology has not changed at all. The monkeys continue -as they did 40,000 years ago- cracking nuts and generating ‘pseudo instruments’ of stone that are scattered. This lack of technological change cannot be applied to humans, since from 14,000 to 12,000 years old the lithic technologies of that area of ​​Brazil were constantly transformed. So it’s important to ask why they didn’t change between 40,000 and 14,000 years ago? I believe that human occupation in Northeast Brazil has a high chance of having started around 14,000 years ago based on different available evidence”.

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