You wouldn't know it by current world events, but humans
actually evolved to be peaceful, cooperative and social animals.
Washington University, St. Louis, MO - In a new book, an
anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis goes against the
prevailing view and argues that primates, including early humans, evolved
not as hunters but as prey of many predators, including wild dogs and
cats, hyenas, eagles and crocodiles.
Despite popular theories posed in research papers and
popular literature, early man was not an aggressive killer, argues Robert
W. Sussman, Ph.D., professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences.
Sussman's book, "Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators and
Human Evolution," poses a new theory, based on the fossil record and
living primate species, that primates have been prey for millions of
years, a fact that greatly influenced the evolution of early man.
He co-authored the book with Donna L. Hart, Ph.D., a
member of the faculty of Pierre Laclede Honors College and the Department
of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The book [was]
scheduled to be released in late February.
Our intelligence, cooperation and many other features we
have as modern humans developed from our attempts to out-smart the
predator, says Sussman.
Since the 1924 discovery of the first early humans,
australopithicenes, which lived from seven million years ago to two
million years ago, many scientists theorized that those early human
ancestors were hunters and possessed a killer instinct.
Through his research and writing, Sussman has worked for
years to debunk that theory. An expert in the ecology and social structure
of primates, Sussman does extensive fieldwork in primate behavior and
ecology in Costa Rica, Guyana, Madagascar and Mauritius. He is the author
and editor of several books, including "The Origins and Nature of
Sociality," "Primate Ecology and Social Structure," and "The Biological
Basis of Human Behavior: A Critical Review."
The idea of "Man the Hunter" is the generally accepted
paradigm of human evolution, says Sussman, who recently served as editor
of American Anthropologist. "It developed from a basic Judeo-Christian
ideology of man being inherently evil, aggressive and a natural killer. In
fact, when you really examine the fossil and living non-human primate
evidence, that is just not the case."
Studying the fossil evidence
And examine the evidence they did. Sussman and Hart's
research is based on studying the fossil evidence dating back nearly seven
million years. "Most theories on Man the Hunter fail to incorporate this
key fossil evidence," Sussman says. "We wanted evidence, not just theory.
We thoroughly examined literature available on the skulls, bones,
footprints and on environmental evidence, both of our hominid ancestors
and the predators that coexisted with them."
Since the process of human evolution is so long and
varied, Sussman and Hart decided to focus their research on one specific
species, Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between five million and
two and a half million years ago and is one of the better known early
human species. Most paleontologists agree that Australopithecus afarensis
is the common link between fossils that came before and those that came
after. It shares dental, cranial and skeletal traits with both. It's also
a very well-represented species in the fossil record.
"Australopithecus afarensis was probably quite strong,
like a small ape," Sussman says. Adults ranged from around 3 to 5 feet and
they weighed 60-100 pounds. They were basically smallish bipedal primates.
Their teeth were relatively small, very much like modern humans, and they
were fruit and nut eaters.
But what Sussman and Hart discovered is that
Australopithecus afarensis was not dentally pre-adapted to eat meat. "It
didn't have the sharp shearing blades necessary to retain and cut such
foods," Sussman says. "These early humans simply couldn't eat meat. If
they couldn't eat meat, why would they hunt?"
It was not possible for early humans to consume a large
amount of meat until fire was controlled and cooking was possible. Sussman
points out that the first tools didn't appear until two million years ago.
And there wasn't good evidence of fire until after 800,000 years ago. "In
fact, some archaeologists and paleontologists don't think we had a modern,
systematic method of hunting until as recently as 60,000 years ago," he
"Furthermore, Australopithecus afarensis was an edge
species," adds Sussman. They could live in the trees and on the ground and
could take advantage of both. "Primates that are edge species, even today,
are basically prey species, not predators," Sussman argues.
The predators living at the same time as Australopithecus
afarensis were huge and there were 10 times as many as today. There were
hyenas as big as bears, as well as saber-toothed cats and many other
mega-sized carnivores, reptiles and raptors. Australopithecus afarensis
didn't have tools, didn't have big teeth and was three feet tall. He was
using his brain, his agility and his social skills to get away from these
predators. "He wasn't hunting them," says Sussman. "He was avoiding them
at all costs."
Approximately 6 percent to 10 percent of early humans were
preyed upon according to evidence that includes teeth marks on bones,
talon marks on skulls and holes in a fossil cranium into which sabertooth
cat fangs fit, says Sussman. The predation rate on savannah antelope and
certain ground-living monkeys today is around 6 percent to 10 percent as
Sussman and Hart provide evidence that many of our modern
human traits, including those of cooperation and socialization, developed
as a result of being a prey species and the early human's ability to
out-smart the predators. These traits did not result from trying to hunt
for prey or kill our competitors, says Sussman.
"One of the main defenses against predators by animals
without physical defenses is living in groups," says Sussman. "In fact,
all diurnal primates (those active during the day) live in permanent
social groups. Most ecologists agree that predation pressure is one of the
major adaptive reasons for this group-living. In this way there are more
eyes and ears to locate the predators and more individuals to mob them if
attacked or to confuse them by scattering. There are a number of reasons
that living in groups is beneficial for animals that otherwise would be
very prone to being preyed upon."
Source: Washington University in St. Louis
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