"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 well.
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."
Friday, October 29, 2010
You might be as fascinated as I am by the recent finding of stone tool butchering 3.4 million years ago, pushing back the earliest meat-eating of our pre-human ancestors by about a million years. Well, in my preliminary research on the topic, I came across this gem about a 2006 book by anthrolopolist Robert Sussman. But instead of touting the 'Man as Hunter' paradigm, he went about demonstrating why we are not simply killers, but agents of compassion, cooperation, and caring. Turns out our ancestors help to highlight why. This great quote concerns Australopithecus afarensis (you may know her as 'Lucy'), the pre-human ancestor of (first human) Homo habilis:
By all means, it's important to note the timeline of scavenging and hunting to the evolution of our species and the implications for modern day health. But I think that the 'Man as Hunter' idea is well understood in most cases, and taken to extremes in some cases. We are not simply the selfish, solitary man-sharks that modern culture teaches us to be.
Especially for men, I've noticed a degree of machismo that seeps into the evolutionary interpretation -- an unnatural alpha-male complex. Man as unemotional. Man as tough. Man as killer. Believe me, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne are lone wolf archetypes that wouldn't have lasted long in the Paleolithic. This is worth reiterating: Don't be subject to unnatural Neolithic social isolation or a dramatic misrepresentation of your true nature. We are compassionate, expressive, social beings in addition to the selfish, competitive ideal you know so well. The effort to heal our fragmented communities and work cooperatively to solve big problems requires this simple recognition.