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Did Lucy’s species butcher animals?

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Lucy skeletonMINNEAPOLIS—In August 2010 archaeologists announced that they had discovered evidence that pushed back the origin of butchery nearly 800,000 years. Studying bones of cow- and goat-size animals dated to around 3.4 million years ago from a site in Ethiopia called Dikika, Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues observed several distinctive marks. After conducting an extensive analysis of the marks, the team determined that they resulted from butchery with stone tools, although no implements were recovered at the site. Because the only human remains known from Dikika belong to Australopithecus afarensis—the species to which the famous Lucy fossil belongs—the researchers concluded A. afarensis was the butcher.

The discovery made a big splash, because scientists thought stone tool use and butchery originated with human ancestors more advanced than Lucy’s kind. Furthermore, according to conventional wisdom, A. afarensis relied primarily on plant foods.

Not everyone was convinced by the team’s claims. Last November, Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo of the Complutense University of Madrid and his colleagues published a paper arguing on the basis of photographs of the Dikika specimens that the alleged cutmarks were actually the result of the bones being trampled by animals. Dikika team member Curtis Marean of Arizona State University fired back saying the critics had rushed to press without studying the actual remains, and that some of the telltale signs of butchery are only visible with firsthand inspection of the bones.

Here at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society on April 12, it was clear that the debate has only intensified since then. Jessica Thompson of the University of Queensland in Australia described the results of the Dikika team’s recent attempts to figure out whether the Dikika individuals used intentionally modified stone tools to deflesh the bones and access the marrow inside, or whether they used unmodified, naturally sharp-edged stones that they found in their environment to do the job.* The researchers removed meat and marrow from ungulate limb bones using modified and unmodified stones and then studied the resulting marks on the bones and compared them to the Dikika marks. They found that the Dikika marks all fall within the range of the damage that resulted in their experiment from butchery with naturally sharp-edged stones.

Dominguez-Rodrigo spoke next, giving a strongly worded talk reiterating his research group’s original assertions about the finds and admonishing the Dikika team for sidestepping scientific critique, misrepresenting the arguments of the critics, and insinuating that Dominguez-Rodrigo and his colleagues are biased against the notion of such ancient butchery. His group’s own experiments with unmodified stones to deflesh ungulate limbs indicate that it is possible to get marks that look like the Dikika ones, but he notes that the Dikika researchers were unable to show that the marks fall outside the range of variation of the trampling marks. They cannot prove that the marks are not the result of trampling, he insists.

UPDATE (4/17/11): Marean observes that only a small subset of the Dikika marks fall within the range of variation of Dominguez-Rodrigo’s trampled sample. The others fall outside that range of variation. "The odd leap in logic that they then make is that since a subset fall within the range of variation of the trampled sample, then it is best to assume that all are trample marks, even when those marks match stone-tool inflicted ones," he comments.

*Editor’s note (4/17/11): This sentence has been changed since it was first published to correct Thompson’s affiliation.

Image of Lucy skeleton, from Wikipedia

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  1. 1. dhisrael 3:13 pm 04/13/2011

    Horse-feathers…there is absolutely no proof! More likely proof that ET butchered those animals. Or, perhaps Tarzan or Cheetah used those tools on their meat. At least it is just as unscientific. And, who says Lucy didnot have an Ipad? Just because no one has found one doesn’t mean she didn’t. How creative! Facts, don’t let them get in your way! SA needs to be moved to the fiction rack at the library.

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  2. 2. Chris G 3:23 pm 04/13/2011

    I wonder if there are older bones of prey animals available in sufficient quantity to statistically compare the bones from when the hominids were around to butcher them with when they weren’t. It might be difficult to tease out depending on scarcity of the samples and the prevalence of hunting or scavenging the animals in question. However, if it is difficult to distinguish the individual marks of butchery from trampling, maybe the incidence rate of the marks could help solve the question. You would expect the rate of trampling not to change much over time, but if a species introduces a new behavior, that would change the number of cut marks.

    We see tool use and hunting behavior in chimps; it isn’t that much of a stretch to propose tool use associated meat consumption from another species.

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 3:53 pm 04/13/2011

    That is amazing and those bones of that bipedal looks childlike. Didn’t they have really big animals back 800,000 years ago that that little person would be just a very small snack for. I know that it would be very hard for a little bipedal person like that to out run a saber-toothed tiger or even for it to kill a tiger or any other cat like animal.

    And you just may be right ‘Bonzo666′; just give these guys another month and they will have Lucy inventing the computer and flying to South America for breakfast.

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  4. 4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 6:15 pm 04/13/2011

    It would be a bummer if we can’t tell either way. Hope they will find tools too.

    @ dishrael: The problem isn’t lack of evidence, the article describes it. The problem is that the tests are inconclusive.

    @ JamesDavis: Read the original article, there is nothing on hunting there. "whether they were fashioning implements from stone or just picking up sharp-edged rocks from the landscape and using those to carve up the carcasses remains unknown, because no stone tools have turned up at the site." Carcasses are the products of your saber-tooth cat’s kills, for example, and hyenas attest to that there will be nutritious scraps left over after the cats leave.

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  5. 5. dhisrael 9:54 pm 04/13/2011

    Perhaps I did not make it plain; There is no proof or evidence either that a humanoid made these marks. Marks on a bone followed by the jump to a humaniod using a tool is a huge assumption. The false assumption is that no other animal uses tools but we do know other animals such as otters and even birds use tools. I never questioned the fact that there was evidence in the sense of tool marks just the false assumption that they must have been Lucy’s doings.

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 12:12 am 04/14/2011

    Perhaps Lucy was taught to find sharp rocks by those aliens from outer space – how could she have possibly figured it out by herself?

    I think that chimpanzees have continued their own development since Lucy’s time and that they were not yet capable of tool use. I suspect that Lucy may have had some intellectual advantages over even today’s chimpanzees just on the basis of bipedalism freeing her hands for other activities. I suspect this alone would have imparted distinct brain architectural developments.

    I do agree that additional evidence is required, but it is too soon to dismiss these potential indicators of human tool use.

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  7. 7. tharter 9:28 am 04/14/2011

    Right, totally agree. The only other thing to say is that 3.4 million years is a long time. We may well never know for certain. Like many of the big questions science sometimes addresses there are just no sure answers.

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  8. 8. jtdwyer 10:01 am 04/14/2011

    That _was_ a long time ago – it’s amazing how much fossil evidence _has_ been preserved of what may have been a very small population base.

    Speaking of fossil preservation which, as I understand, occurs only in very special conditions, fossils do not usually provide a representative statistical sampling of any previous population. I hate to mention it, but I even have to wonder how much the volcanic geological conditions of East-Central Africa has contributed to our own particular sampling of the existing fossil record… As you say, we’ll probably never know for sure.

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  9. 9. Ungolythe 3:36 pm 04/14/2011

    Can you provide a link to your analysis of the evidence? I assume since you are so convinced that the evidence is false that you must have analyzed it yourself or at least did a peer review of the original paper.

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  10. 10. blindboy 8:07 pm 04/14/2011

    The lack of supporting evidence means that the hypothesis of early butchering is weak. There is also the issue of behavioural variability. If butchering did occur in this instance it does not immediately follow that this was widespread in afarensis populations. The dispute between the researchers merely suggests that emotions have got in the way of good scientific judgement. They need to agree to await further analysis of the material or new discoveries; though it is a bit cheeky disputing the team’s finding on the basis of a photograph!

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  11. 11. jtdwyer 1:12 am 04/22/2011

    I think that the conditions that produce fossils are generally rare enough that it’s not very likely that they coincide with a outlying behavioral characteristic. I think it’s unlikely that, in a few million years, there will be any fossils available of today’s butchers.

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