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Orangutan from Borneo photographed using a spear tool to fish (2008) (primatology.net)
146 points by DanBC 17 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 39 comments

If you read the article it says the Orangutan attempted to fish this way after watching humans do it, but was unsuccessful.

Still a very cool picture, and amazing to see the orangutan learn by observation like that.

Most humans can’t really successfully master complex skills without instruction, though. It would be interesting to see if orangutans can learn to fish with a little help from a teacher.

> Most humans can’t really successfully master complex skills without instruction, though. It would be interesting to see if orangutans can learn to fish with a little help from a teacher.

I think most humans could learn how to spear a fish without instruction after enough trial and error.

Human shoulder muscles/tendons evolved so they can store more elasticity than our ancestors making us better at throwing.

Our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, is stronger than a human but can throw a spear at about 20 mph. A human athlete can throw a spear at 90 mph.

Orangutans can learn how to throw faster but they cannot change their anatomy, although a spear thrower could help.

How fast can an average human throw?

I can't imagine that throwing speed (or—related—throwing force) would be a big limiting factor for spear fishing. Reflexes/reaction speeds would be more relevant. Not sure how other primates compare to us here, but likely pretty well for any animal living in the wild compared to modern urbanised humans.

It would be interesting if other Orangutans follow suite and either monitor humans or each other trying this "new method" and eventually add this (use of spear) in other aspects of their life.

Reminds me of the Orangutan Sawing on PBS Nature episode. Of course most animals can be trained to do a variety of things but picking up skills observationally and then transferring it down couple generations is quite an interesting domain.


Orang utan is a Malay/Indonesian word translated to 'Jungle human'. Orangutan are very calm, gentle and human like. It's a mystery how similar they are to us human in a sense that they are very predictable and very intelligent. Perhaps, evolution as we understand ..were already known to the people who were living nearby to the orangutan.

Following the link, there is some stuff about how new genetic research shows that humans may be closer to orangutans than chimpanzees.

While theoretically possible, that idea starts in a deep hole, since orangutans don't come from Africa.

Closer to orangutans doesn't mean evolved from orangutans.

The idea is that humans evolved from a common ancestor, and retained more of the DNA that orangutans now have than chimps did.

Closer to orangutans does in fact mean that the most recent common ancestor with orangutans is more recent than the most recent common ancestor with chimps. That's how you measure evolutionary distance.

> and [humans] retained more of the DNA that orangutans now have than chimps did.

That can't possibly be the actual argument. If humans shared more genetically with orangutans than with chimps, we would conclude that humans had diverged from orangutans -- not chimps -- regardless of whether that were true, because the genetic distance is all we have to address the question with.

I'm not the expert on the topic, but as far as I can tell, the claim is in fact that (a) there are more similarities to orangutans, yet (b) the split from chimps is more recent.

If I understand correctly you are saying "distance" is proportional to time by definition, and what I was reading seems to say that is not strictly the case.

"Theoretically, orangutans have had more time to accumulate genetic variation compared to humans and chimpanzees, which split into their own lineages 5 million to 6 million years ago. One would expect at least twice as much variation in the orangutan genome. However, in the study, a comparison of the three genomes shows that humans and chimpanzees have lost or gained new genes at twice the rate of orangutans."

"there are many similarities to the human and orangutan genome, much more similar than human to chimp, in fact. They suspect that could be because humans split from a common ancestor with chimps, of which both species had the same ancestral orangutan DNA. What remains curious is that humans and chimpanzees have evolved separately for millions of years. In the process, chimps for mysterious reasons lost some orangutan DNA that humans retained."

Source: https://primatology.net/2011/01/26/orangutan-genome-sequence...

The paper referenced from that quote ( https://sci-hub.tw/10.1101/gr.114751.110 ) actually says this:

> We therefore conclude that human is closer to orangutan than to chimpanzee in 0.8% of the genome, and chimpanzee is closest to orangutan in 0.6% of the genome.

That looks like humans are overwhelmingly more similar to chimpanzees, and chimps to humans, than either is to orangutans, no?

> we would conclude that humans had diverged from orangutans -- not chimps

Isn't the current consensus that humans and chimps diverged from a common ancestor. Not that human diverged from chimps?

Those are the same thing stated two different ways. I'm contrasting diverging from chimps with diverging from orangutans.

Our origin is actually not that simple and straight forward. They now believe we may have bred with non homo sapiens https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06004-0

I believe what makes humans powerful is written language. It can survive generations and can be copied and shared. That power leads to someone figuring something out halfway, and someone evolving it into a working piece. Then someone comes and evolves the technique to a blazing efficiency.

Plus writing allows trade to occur because we can keep verifiable accounts. This leads to specialization and trade where efficient tools propagate really fast.

Seeing written language and trade in any other species would mean they’d evolve their technology real fast.

It seems that what defines humanity has to be a bit refined... I reckons the article implies the spear was created by the orangutan as it points to Nature articles about tools creation.

> It seems that what defines humanity has to be a bit refined

Since the discovery of Darwinian evolution, we've understood humanity to be just one more outflow of natural processes (albeit one having its day in the sun). The search for a specific marker of human uniqueness continued for a good century after that, but is fizzling out as we understand more about the nonhuman world, and as the intellectual influence of monotheistic religions wanes. We're a species. We emerged. We'll go away. No essential uniqueness, no destiny.

I think humans are obviously unique in the same way as the first social insect, or whatever bacterium caused the Oxygen Catastrophe, or early lignin-producing plants. In fact, you could look at human history as kind of an echo of the evolution of lignin, since (I read somewhere) lignin is basically why we have fossil fuels.

Arguably yes - it's too early to tell as it's such a young species. It's just as likely it will prove to be short (if ecologically consequential) branch of the evolutionary tree that will prove unviable and come to a dead end.

But as humans are complex systems that are themselves outcomes of a wider complex system, there's not going to be a marker or essence (or 'definition' as the parent put it) of that uniqueness. Rather there's a one or more characteristically human emergent properties and capacities. No new version of 'tool-using' or 'bipedal' or related substitutes for the discarded Christian soul will win out.

No soul, no essence, no destiny. Just one amongst millions of evolutionary branches whose unplanned evolutionary future will play itself out.

The stick is stolen from humans. (Also, while this is headlined as "spear fishing", the orangutan isn't able to catch any fish with it.)

He later catches fish with it that had been trapped by fisherman's lines - and as someone who has tried spear fishing even catching one that's trapped is pretty darn good.

Yeah, he used a human stick and needs practise. All those people who can build their own cars and drive without lessons may know throw stones

Me, I'm gonna wait till the second generation of Orangutan's start copying their parents. If they can use this new way of supplementing their diet, we have a real winner.

“that’s why they call it fishing and not catching” is a popular, if smartass, response to that.

A human may not be able to catch fish either on the first try. Even for humans it takes practise...

It's been 11 years.

Aren't orangutans only found on a single tiny island of the world? If they were everywhere I feel like this kind of stuff wouldn't be news at all, it would be inevitable. Learning from humans is still very impressive if you think of it as a cross-species culture acquisition.

They're found on Borneo, the 3rd largest island in the world. The Kaja island they talk about is an island on a river on Borneo, but not the only place where orang-utans are found.

There's a reason for the phrase, "monkey see, monkey do"


Added. Thanks.

Someone listens to the Joe Rogan podcast

Quick, find another reason why humans are superior to animals!

Humans are animals. This distinction is silly and I hope that kind of thinking will just die out at some point. I think it leads to hubris.

In fact, if you subscribe to the (well-supported) idea that any living being can be hierarchically categorised by the traits it has, humans are still monkeys, in the same way that all birds are still dinosaurs. Personally, this is one of my favourite facts.

I wonder what life would've been like if human-level intelligence had evolved from dinosaurs instead. As I understand it, birds have several features superior to what we've inherited.

That said, it would be rather dishonest to claim that humans aren't one of the most successful species on the planet. I just hope we're clever enough not to cause our own extinction very soon, but it's not looking good.

When we fish, we actually catch the fish ;)

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