When and how did our earliest ancestors start hunting for the meat they ate?
Until quite recently most scholars thought that, until about 400,000 years ago, they scavenged the leftovers of other predators, or animals that had died of natural causes. However, anthropologist Professor Henry Bunn of Wisconsin University now claims that early humans were using complex hunting techniques to ambush and kill antelopes, gazelles, wildebeest and other large animals nearly two million years ago.
These ancient hunters would have been about the size of chimpanzees with brains that were not much larger. Although primitive and puny, Professor Bunn believes that they had learnt to select and isolate individual animals from a herd of antelopes and bring their prey home for dinner.
Professor Bunn and his team examined the remains of wildebeest, antelopes and gazelles at a huge butchery site in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, which had been brought there by ancient humans over 1.8 million years ago.
Studying the teeth in the skulls that were left gave them a very good idea of the type of meat being eaten and the age of the animals. Then they compared their findings with the kinds of animals taken by lions and leopards.The research showed that when selecting large antelopes, humans preferred adult male animals in their prime, whereas lions and leopards take old, young and adults indiscriminately. For smaller species, the picture was slightly different. Humans preferred older animals, while the big cats go after adults in their prime.
As well as the differences in preferences for types of prey, there was other evidence to suggest that these humans hunted and did not rely on carrion. There were plenty of bones from choice parts of the prey that lions and leopards would be unlikely to leave behind willingly.
So how did they hunt? Professor Bunn believes these early hunters probably sat in trees and waited until herds of antelopes or gazelles passed below, they then speared them at point-blank range. They carried them back to the butchery site and used stone tools to skin and strip the meat and smash open the bones for marrow.
Some scientists believe that hunting skills, developed far earlier than suspected, helped our brains evolve faster. Hunting gave our species a larger supply of meat than they could obtain through scavenging. With an abundant protein-rich source of energy, our ancestors no longer needed a huge digestive tract and massive teeth for processing vegetation. This freed up more energy to fuel the growth of our brains and develop evermore sophisticated social skills needed for working together to hunt animals that are larger and faster than humans.
By Celine Castelino - Archeologist