- Jul 2022
Prof. Meiri: "Our study tracked changes at a much higher resolution over a considerably longer period of time compared to previous research. The results were illuminating: we found a continual, and very significant, decline in the size of animals hunted by humans over 1.5 million years. For example, a third of the bones left behind by Homo erectus at sites dated to about a million years ago, belonged to elephants that weighed up to 13 tons (more than twice the weight of the modern African elephant) and provided humans with 90% of their food. The mean weight of all animals hunted by humans at that time was 3 tons, and elephant bones were found at nearly all sites up to 500,000 years ago. "Starting about 400,000 years ago, the humans who lived in our region -- early ancestors of the Neandertals and Homo sapiens, appear to have hunted mainly deer, along with some larger animals weighing almost a ton, such as wild cattle and horses. Finally, in sites inhabited by modern humans, from about 50,000 to 10,000 years ago, approximately 70% of the bones belong to gazelles -- an animal that weighs no more than 20-30kg. Other remains found at these later sites came mostly from fallow deer (about 20%), as well as smaller animals such as hares and turtles."
Progression of body mass over the last 1.5 million years in the Southern Levant: 1) Up to 500,000 years ago 1/3 of bones left behind at Homo Erectus sites belonged to 13 ton elephants that provided 90% of the food. Mean weight of all hunted animals at the time was 3 tons 2) Up to 400,000 years ago, early Neandertals and Homo Sapiens only hunted mainly deer and animals like wild cattle and horse that weighed no more than 1 ton. 3) From 50,000 to 10,000 years ago, 70^ of bones at modern human sites belonged to gazelles weighing between 20 and 30 kg, as well as fallow deer and hares and turtles.
Dr. Ben-Dor: "Our findings enable us to propose a fascinating hypothesis on the development of humankind: humans always preferred to hunt the largest animals available in their environment, until these became very rare or extinct, forcing the prehistoric hunters to seek the next in size. As a result, to obtain the same amount of food, every human species appearing in the Southern Levant was compelled to hunt smaller animals than its predecessor, and consequently had to develop more advanced and effective technologies. Thus, for example, while spears were sufficient for Homo erectus to kill elephants at close range, modern humans developed the bow and arrow to kill fast-running gazelles from a distance." Prof. Barkai concludes: "We believe that our model is relevant to human cultures everywhere. Moreover, for the first time, we argue that the driving force behind the constant improvement in human technology is the continual decline in the size of game. Ultimately, it may well be that 10,000 years ago in the Southern Levant, animals became too small or too rare to provide humans with sufficient food, and this could be related to the advent of agriculture. In addition, we confirmed the hypothesis that the extinction of large animals was caused by humans -- who time and time again destroyed their own livelihood through overhunting. We may therefore conclude that humans have always ravaged their environment but were usually clever enough to find solutions for the problems they had created -- from the bow and arrow to the agricultural revolution. The environment, however, always paid a devastating price."
This is a fascinating claim with far reaching consequences for modern humans dealing with the Anthropocene polycrisis.
Technological development seems to have been related to our resource overshoot. As we extirpated the larger prey fauna which were slower moving and able to be successfully hunted with crude weapons, our ancestors were forced to hunt smaller and more agile species, requiring better hunting technologies.
Agriculture could have been the only option left to our ancestors when there was insufficient species left to support society. This is the most salient sentence:
"we confirmed the hypothesis that the extinction of large animals was caused by humans -- who time and time again destroyed their own livelihood through overhunting. We may therefore conclude that humans have always ravaged their environment but were usually clever enough to find solutions for the problems they had created"
This is a disturbing finding as technology has allowed humanity to be the apex species of the planet and we are now depleting resources not on a local scale, but a global one. There is no planet B to move to once we have decimated the environment globally.
Have we progressed ourselves into a corner? Are we able to culturally pivot and correct such an entrenched cultural behavior of resource mismanagement?
In this way, according to the researchers, early humans repeatedly overhunted large animals to extinction (or until they became so rare that they disappeared from the archaeological record) and then went on to the next in size -- improving their hunting technologies to meet the new challenge. The researchers also claim that about 10,000 years ago, when animals larger than deer became extinct, humans began to domesticate plants and animals to supply their needs, and this may be why the agricultural revolution began in the Levant at precisely that time.
This is an extraordinary claim, that due to extirpation of fauna prey species, we resorted to agriculture. In other words, that we hunted the largest prey, and when they went extinct, went after the next largest species until all the large megafauna became extinct. According to this claim, agriculture became a necessity due to our poor intergenerational resource management skills.
- homo erectus
- early farming
- 13 ton elephant
- early agriculture
- early extinction
- modern human
- resource management
- progress trap
- early progress trap
- resource depletion
- homo sapien
- Southern Levant
- origins of agriculture
- beginning of agriculture
- early hunting
- early hunter
Multiple large-bodied species went extinct during the Pleistocene. Changing climates and/or human hunting are the main hypotheses used to explain these extinctions. We studied the causes of Pleistocene extinctions in the Southern Levant, and their subsequent effect on local hominin food spectra, by examining faunal remains in archaeological sites across the last 1.5 million years. We examined whether climate and climate changes, and/or human cultures, are associated with these declines. We recorded animal abundances published in the literature from 133 stratigraphic layers, across 58 Pleistocene and Early Holocene archaeological sites, in the Southern Levant. We used linear regressions and mixed models to assess the weighted mean mass of faunal assemblages through time and whether it was associated with temperature, paleorainfall, or paleoenvironment (C3 vs. C4 vegetation). We found that weighted mean body mass declined log-linearly through time. Mean hunted animal masses 10,500 years ago, were only 1.7% of those 1.5 million years ago. Neither body size at any period, nor size change from one layer to the next, were related to global temperature or to temperature changes. Throughout the Pleistocene, new human lineages hunted significantly smaller prey than the preceding ones. This suggests that humans extirpated megafauna throughout the Pleistocene, and when the largest species were depleted the next-largest were targeted. Technological advancements likely enabled subsequent human lineages to effectively hunt smaller prey replacing larger species that were hunted to extinction or until they became exceedingly rare.
We must be careful of overgeneralizing sustainable practices to our early ancestors as the evidence from this research shows that we were not always sustainability-minded. In fact, the evidence suggests that when we find the biggest edible prey fauna species, we hunt them to extinction (extirpate) and when they are no longer able to reproduce in sustainable numbers, we move on to the next largest species. In this way, our early ancestors were the first progenitors of progress traps.
We did not find strong evidence to suggest that climate, climatic fluctuations, rainfall, or vegetation over the last 1.5 million years, influenced the size of animals hunted and consumed by humans. Rather, mean body size declined linearly on a backdrop of multiple glacial-interglacial cycles. New human lineages subsisted on smaller prey than their predecessors and used more advanced tools to cope with hunting smaller prey. We suggest that hominins were likely the leading cause of Pleistocene
The evidence suggests that humans were responsible for extirpating the largest prey fauna at the time, resulting in intergenerational decline in prey fauna body mass.
This early finding has implications for modern human behavior. In fact, it explains our tendency to overshoot resources until we extirpate them is not a new behavior but one that dates back millions of years. The implications for our current polycrisis suggests we are dealing with an entrenched behavior that may be difficult to change and that technology has amplified our ability to mine natural resources, extirpating them at a faster rate. From this perspective, the Anthropocene can be seen as a logical result of an ever decreasing extirpation rate brought about by increasing efficacy of technological tools for resource extraction.