We were lowly scavengers long before we became noble hunter-gatherers

There has always been an aura of romance about our ancient hunter-gatherer forbears. The term “noble savage” ( “bon sauvage”) only dates back to 1672 but the concept gained ground in the 18th and 19th centuries and the idea of “nature’s gentlemen” flourished in the sentimentality of that time. Jean M Auel’s hugely successful Earths Children series also paints a picture of rather noble hunter-gatherers. Hunters are of course intrinsically heroic and appending “gatherers” to their description does not take too much away. The heroic stature is only dissipated when we become fully settled agriculturists – mere farmers – in the Holocene. Farmer’s don’t conjure up images of nobility and heroism and of course when humans became traders they also get greed and deviousness added to their image.

But there is no perceived nobility or honor in scavenging. It is the image of the hyena versus that of the lion. But long before we became hunter-gatherers we were scroungers and scavengers. New archaeological findings indicates that we were hunter-scavengers some 2 million years ago. And we were scavengers before that and scroungers when we first split from the chimps.

Ferraro JV, Plummer TW, Pobiner BL, Oliver JS, Bishop LC, et al. (2013) Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Persistent Hominin Carnivory. PLoS ONE 8(4): e62174. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062174

My imagined time-line for the various phases of human development then becomes:

  • 8 million YBP           Human Chimpanzee divergence – Scroungers
  • 4 million YBP           Bipedalism – Scavengers
  • 2 million YBP           Stone tools – Hunter-scavengers
  • 600,000 YBP          Archaic Human – Neanderthal divergence
  • 200,000 YBP          Hunting teams, herd followers  Hunter-nomads
  • 60,000    YBP          Semi-permanent dwellings, Hunter-gatherers
  • 11,500     YBP          Settled agriculture Farmers
  • 5,000       YBP          Mercantile expansions Merchant-soldiers

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2 Responses to “We were lowly scavengers long before we became noble hunter-gatherers”

  1. neocortex21 Says:

    I believe there is evidence that we were power scavengers, Isn’t there? Its been a while since my studies in anthropology, but aren’t there remains of prey that could only be hunted by large predators with cutting marks in the bone to indicate humans likely scared away predators from their kill (with throwing stones and swinging ‘bats’). I know that it is likely we used to live off of fatty bone marrow from the remains, but isn’t there evidence in our ancestor’s bone structure that indicates we used our throwing and ‘bat’-striking muscles moreso than the pre-homo ancestors did? I’d like to think of us at least as aggressive scavengers 🙂 Great post.

    • ktwop Says:

      My only point – apart from the presumed “nobility” of various behaviours – is that after we adopted bipedalism there was probably a long period of scavenging kills made by other species before developing the capabilities of making our own kills.

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