- 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.
- resource depletion
- resource management
- early agriculture
- early progress trap
- Southern Levant
- homo sapien
- homo erectus
- early extinction
- 13 ton elephant
- progress trap
- early hunter
- origins of agriculture
- modern human
- early farming
- early hunting
- beginning of agriculture