The hunters and the hunted
Humans and large predators were both competing for prey for more than a million years. They must have affected each other in their Evolution. Large part of our social behaviour must be the consequence of defence against large predators, but also to compete with them as successful hunter.
How did we start to eat meat?
Lions or hyenas – who do we want to be compared with? Most of us would rather be associated with the powerful and royalty of the lion then with the “slobbering mangy stupid poachers” the unjust reputation of hyenas.
Although there is no question about that we must have started to eat meat, we still do not know when and how.
The first proofs for hunting
Earliest hunting weapons are found in Schöningen in Europe and dated to 290.000 till 337.000 years1-4 . The spears are made from spruce stems and pinewood their length ranges from 1.82 to 2.25 m 3. The greatest diameter is located in the front third of the shaft5 making them comparable with modern tournament javelins5. Replicas of these spears were thrown up to 70 m (230 ft) 2,6.
Older spear points indicating active hunting are found in Kathu Pan, South Africa7,8. The retouched points are made from banded ironstone and black chert8 and dated to 500,000 years8.
Reconstruction of earliest humans in the American Continent. Hunting big game required strong collaboration and high level of social skills.
Real hunting probably started earlier, as in situ processing of complete carcasses of fallow deer is dated to ~780,000 at Gesher Benot Ya’kov in Israel9. Hunting with weapons is widely accepted for sites from about 300,000 years onward in Europe and Africa10,11. Hunting and the systematic processing of carcasses was an essential part of our hominins during this time11,12.
However, when our ancestors started to eat meat, this might have started as a scavenger rather than a hunter. Among experts in this field an extensive debate about whether we were starting by overcoming our prey13 or just eating the leftovers of sabertoothed tigers and Cave lions.14-18 The challenge in this debate is that as long as no hunting weapons are found, it remains open if hominids started as hunters or scavengers.19 Especially wooden hunting weapons are mostly lost in the fossil record because organic material is usually decomposed before fossilization sets in. In case of the above-mentioned spears from Schöningen, the special conditions of the lake muds covering the spears have allowed their preservation.3 These conditions, though, are rare and at sites older than 500,000 we can only find cut- and butchering marks showing that our ancestors must have processed meat.20,21
Australopithecines were for a first thought to have consumed carcasses of predators using the so-called “osteodontokeratic” tool and weapon kit consisting of animal bones, teeth and horn.22,23 The idea that human evolution started with “killer-apes” became popular but was soon falsified24,25. The accumulated teeth, broken bones and horns were most likely the remains of scavenging hyenas26.
Scientists expected a chimpanzee-like diet for our earlier ancestors such as Australopithecus.27 Meat-eating was believed to have started with the oldest stone tools and the appearance of the Genus Homo by about 2 million years ago.28 This theory also fitted into the image we had of Humans, associating the capability to produce tools and process meat from a carcass with higher brain size.
The butchering of animals is proven for around 2 million years ago.
Oldest signs of butchering are discovered at 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia29 . Cut marks are found at a medium-sized antelope bone and a buffalo bone, indicating that Australopithecus afarensis was already using tools to deflesh carcasses29 . If these animals were already hunted by Australopithecines or if they were eating carcasses killed by other animals is still a debate.
At first glance, it might seem easier for hominins to start scavenging than hunting, because hunting requires complex social skills and the preparation of weapons. However, chimpanzees also occasionally hunt on vertebrates and also use simple spears30,31. Thus, hunting for Australopithecines with a chimp sized brain might have been already an option.
No matter if hunter or scavenger, hominins had to defend the kill against other predators.
The impression that scavenging is simpler than hunting because it requires only to remove flesh from the carcass, can be misleading. Carcasses need to be first detected before putrification sets in. Terpenoids and other “byproducts” of the decaying processes are toxic. Further, we need to consider that there is also a competition for carcasses.32-35 Vultures, jackals and hyenas are skilled scavengers and were well equipped with scent and sight to detect a fresh kill. Proto-human hominins might have started with kills by leopards and cheetahs.15 Cheetahs tend to be very fearful and give up easier on a prey item than other predators35. Leopards often hang their kills in trees to protect it from hyenas36. For hominins, these prey items might have been easier to detect and to remove by sticks15. In this way, hominins could have started as a scavenger or most likely by a combination of both – hunting and scavenging.
The Lion share of the prey Modern humans reserved the lion-share of today’s prey animal simply by domestication and agriculture1. But what kind of role did Homo erectus played in the predator guild of Java during the ice age – the hunter or the hunted? During the ice...
Large monsters from mainland Tigers once were giants in Java. Their body masses reached up to 300 kg (Volmer et al., 2016), a size recorded only for Siberian tigers today. In contrast, prehistoric tigers in Java, were only up to sizes of 75 – 141 kg...
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