Early humans on the menu

Feb 27, 2006

It is a widely accepted view in both research and popular literature: our ancient ancestors were hunters; aggressive, competitive and natural killers. This “Man the Hunter” idea has long influenced our understanding of human evolution, resulting in a focus on competition, aggression and even war.

However, new research by Agustin Fuentes, O’Neill Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, and other leading anthropologists suggests that humans and other primates were more often prey than predators, a fact that greatly influenced the evolution of early man.

Based on the fossil evidence dating back 7 million years and studies in living primate species, Fuentes and others suggest that primates, including early humans, were the prey of many predators, including hyenas, cats and crocodiles. These predators were both more numerous (more than 10 times as many as today) and larger, with hyenas as big as bears and other mega-sized carnivores, reptiles and raptors.

Being on the menu for predatory beasts may have driven humans to evolve increased levels of cooperation, according to Fuentes.

“Studies of human behavior in the social and biological sciences have tended to model the role of competition and the appearance of aggression, trying to explain why humans fight, go to war and otherwise engage in large-scale competitive contests,” Fuentes said. “However, predation played an important role in our evolution and humanity evolved more by helping each other than by fighting each other.”

About 2 million years ago, humans suffered the same predation rates as other primates. Roughly 6 percent of most primates, then and now, are killed and eaten.

“Then a change occurred in the fossil record,” Fuentes said. “Predation rates on other species went up while ours declined.”

Fuentes argues that even before the development of language, humans were uniquely able to share the kind of second-hand information that could warn others where predators were lurking. At the same time, an increasing reliance on cooperative interactions in foraging, reproduction and general health maintenance emerged among early humans. All of these factors contributed to an emergence of social behavior in humans that made them harder targets for predators.

Fuentes notes that predation appears to be common in two different groups of humanlike species around 2.5 million years ago: Homo and Paranthropus.

“By 1.5 million years ago, increased behavioral flexibility and cooperative interactions allowed for a successful evolutionary pattern in Homo,” Fuentes said. “Paranthropus, it appears, could not adapt in these ways to the pressure of predation and became extinct between one and 1.2 million years ago.

“One of the major events in human evolution may be our response to substantial predation pressure and our subsequent success altering selective environments.”

Source: University of Notre Dame, By William G. Gilroy

Explore further: Mapping the world's linguistic diversity—scientists discover links between your genes and the language you speak

Related Stories

'Map of life' predicts ET. (So where is he?)

Jul 02, 2015

Extra-terrestrials that resemble humans should have evolved on other, Earth-like planets, making it increasingly paradoxical that we still appear to be alone in the universe, the author of a new study on ...

Key link in turtle evolution discovered

Jun 25, 2015

An international team of researchers from the United States and Germany have discovered a key missing link in the evolutionary history of turtles. The new extinct species of reptile, Pappochelys, was unearthed ...

Our ancient obsession with food

Jun 05, 2015

Amateur cook-offs like the hugely popular Master Chef series now in its seventh season in Australia have been part of our TV diet for almost two decades. ...

Scientists announce top 10 new species for 2015

May 21, 2015

A cartwheeling spider, a bird-like dinosaur and a fish that wriggles around on the sea floor to create a circular nesting site are among the species identified by the SUNY College of Environmental Science ...

Recommended for you

Lady, you're on the money

23 hours ago

So far, women whose portraits appear on U.S. money have been a party of three. Excluding commemorative currency, only Sacagawea, Susan B. Anthony and Helen Keller appear on coins in general circulation, according ...

Old World monkey had tiny, complex brain

Jul 03, 2015

The brain hidden inside the oldest known Old World monkey skull has been visualized for the first time. The creature's tiny but remarkably wrinkled brain supports the idea that brain complexity can evolve ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.