Epochal Monkey Business

How’s that for an overstated amalgam of topics? Two things of interest to biological anthropologists on ScienceNOW today. First is movement toward redefining the Quaternary time period, second is capuchin monkeys who (knowingly?) deceive their peers to get food. Sneaky bastards.

It looks as though there’s going to be a slap-fight between geologists and ‘quaternists’ over the geological time scale, specifically regarding the status of the Quaternary period. Here’s a great quote from someone fighting for the Quaternary: “They [The International Commission on Stratigraphy] tried to suppress it [the Quaternary] while no one was looking. . . . They nearly got away with it, [but] we were not going to have it” (1). HA! It’s like a story about a church conspiracy, the Elders are afraid of change so they’re hiding the truth! The commentary is full of such quotes. Anyway, while I never use the term, I suppose technically much of what I study is Quaternary (~2.6 million years ago to the present, the beginnings of the Human Empire). The main implication for me is that the Pliocene and Pleistocene boundary has moved. The Pliocene is a bad-ass epoch starting around 5.5 Ma (maybe a little less)–this is when we get the later Ardipithecus kadabba, Ar. ramidus, and the origins of Australopithecus. Next is the Pleistocene around 1.8 Ma–at about this time, we have the earliest humans outside Africa (Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia, possibly Java, and I think some teeth from China). But now the boundary may be pushed back to 2.6 Ma–this is when we have the earliest (evidence of) stone tools, from Gona in Ethiopia. Will this be the end of “Plio-Pleistocene hominins”?

There’s also a story about capuchin monkeys that cry wolf to get their comrades’ food. Sometimes when a subordinate (in the group under study) sees a higher-ranking individual with some food that he wants, the lower-ranking one will fake a predator-warning, tricking the other into thinking there’s danger afoot and running off without its food. Also he craps himself and all the others laugh at and humiliate him. This apparently has implications about the cognitive capabilities in animals–can non-human animals predict how others will respond to certain scenarios? The real lesson for me is that if I’m ever around a capuchin in the wild, and it starts hiccupping (that’s the predator alarm), I’d better book it. But I won’t leave my food. I’ll be damned if I’ll let some little platyrrhine walk all over me, I’m a human being, dammit–I help define the Quaternary.


1. Kerr, R.A., GEOLOGY: A Time War Over the Period We Live In. Science, 2008. 319(5862): p. 402-403.

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