Man the scavenger; hominids of 2 million years ago ate meat: but were they hunters or scavengers?

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Author: Roger Lewin
Date: May 25, 1984
From: Science(Vol. 224)
Publisher: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,828 words

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Man the Hunter had for a very long time been persistent and, it had to be admitted, attractive theme in paleoanthropologists' scenarios of human origins. Coupled with the required wit to fashion stone tools and weapons, the keen intellect of the successful hunter is nicely consonant with the notion of the noble savage as our ancestor. This stirring image has in recent years begun to look less certain, however, and might eventually be replaced by a portrait far less flattering to our sensitive and egotistical spirit: Man the Scavenger.

Although stories of human evolution have frequently made reference to the probable occasional indulgence in scavenging, the idea that scavenging might have represented a complete ecological adaptation is only now being articulated. The principal proponents are Pat Shipman of Johns Hopkins University Medical School and Richard Potts of Yale University. Shipman considers that scavenging might even have been responsible for the evolution of upright walking, or bipedalism, in the first hominids.

Several archeologists have identified scavenging as probably being an important component of early hominid life, specifically Desmond Clark of the University of California, Berkeley, and Glynn Isaac of Harvard. Isaac, whose work at several sites in Kenya has had a major impact on the rigor with which archeological assemblages are now assessed, says Shipman's articulation of the scavenging hypothesis: "We've all converged on this and Pat is making it stand out in bold relief." Jane Buikstra of Northwestern University is impressed by Shipman's coherent presentation. "This idea has been a long time coming. One can be right about an idea, but it is essential to have the arguments and data marshaled in a logical and testable way. Pat has now done this."

In the late 1970's Shipman and Potts were pouring over the vast collection of fossil bones from a site at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. They were interested in the various processes that influence the accumulation of bones at such a site, and they begun to document what appeared to be tell-tale signs of stone tool use on some of the bones, made presumably, by the hominids who lived at Olduvai almost 2 million years ago. Mary Leakey, who has been primarily responsible for excavation work at Olduvai, had from time to time noted such cutmarks, but no one had systematically studied them. This, Shipman and Potts began to do.

More or less at the same time Henry Bunn, then at the University of California, Berkeley, noticed cutmarks on fossil bones from Koobi fora in Kenya. There ensued what one protagonist called "cutmark mania" (Science, 3 July 1981, p. 123). Signs of stone tool use on ancient bones had been recorded previously in the literature, but this was from much later sites, principally from paleo-Indian assemblages. Cutmarks...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A3279145