Meat-Eating Among the Earliest Humans
Evidence of meat-eating among our distant human ancestors is hard to find and even harder to interpret, but researchers are beginning to piece together a coherent picture.
More than a million years ago, some members of the genus Homo developed a taste for meat—a dietary shift that had enormous consequences for the physique, geographic range, population size, social structure, and perhaps even the mental capacity of every hominid generation since then, down to the billions of people inhabiting the world today. A central question in the study of human origins is how meat turned up on our ancestors’ menu in the first place: Was it through deliberate hunting or opportunistic scavenging? And how can we tell the difference, given the scant evidence now available? Briana Pobiner, a researcher and educator in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins, explains the patterns of chewing damage left by living African carnivores when they eat their prey and the search for similar patterns on fossils from prehistoric sites in eastern Africa, where early humans may have competed with carnivores for access to animal prey. She shows how researchers can interpret butchery marks made by ancient stone tools and can even conduct their own experiments using stone tools to butcher present-day animals.
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