Man the Fat Hunter
December 14, 2011 6:58 AM   Subscribe

Did the disappearance of the elephant caused the rise of modern man? Humans are not good at extracting energy from plants or converting protein to energy. Without fire to allow for better conversion, fat was a vital part of early man's diet. Elephants being slower and larger than many other prey was a prime hunting target. When the number of elephants declined, man had to find other sources. Hunting smaller, faster prey resulted in a change in human evolution. Man became lighter and their brain size increased to handle the requirements for hunting enough animals to provide the necessary fat.
posted by 2manyusernames (17 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

After reading the article, it seems to me the error is more closely related to the framing of the FPP than the authors' premise. What is being said is that the above premise is an inference for the rise of one specific cultural complex in a particular region and the authors themselves point out that such a link has not been found in other areas where H. Sapiens arose, such as in Africa or elsewhere.

Thus while this premise may indeed have some base for consideration, as it is framed now it gives the impression that the premise is far more generalized and relates to all instances of modern man. In which case the initial impulse is to say no in response to the question so posed.
posted by infini at 7:12 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

infini: "After reading the article, it seems to me the error is more closely related to the framing of the FPP than the authors' premise. [...]"

I based the title on the coverage
posted by 2manyusernames at 7:15 AM on December 14, 2011

This totally confirms my till-now subconscious thoughts that if I only had a nice, juicy, fatty elephant in the backyard right now I could totally blow off work for a few months.
posted by jimmythefish at 7:27 AM on December 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Interesting, this is what the original article says:

Archaeological evidence seems to associate H. erectus with large and medium-sized game {Namely, Body Size Group A (BSGA Elephant, >1000 kg), BSGB (Hippopotamus, rhinoceros approx. 1000 kg), and BSGC (Giant deer, red deer, boar, bovine, 80–250 kg); (after [26])}, most conspicuously elephants, whose remains are commonly found at Acheulian sites throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe (e.g., [26], [27], [28], [29], [30]). In some instances elephant bones and tusks were also transformed into shaped tools, specifically artifacts reminiscent of the characteristic Acheulian stone handaxes [31].

In Africa, H. sapiens appears around 200 kyr ago, most probably replacing H. erectus and/or H. heidelbergensis [32], [33], [34]. Early African H. sapiens used both handaxes and the sophisticated tool-manufacturing technologies known as the Levallois technique (e.g., [35], [36]) while its sites are devoid of elephants [32], [35]. The presence of elephants in many Acheulian African sites and their absence from later Middle Stone Age sites [29], [37], evoked an overkill hypothesis ([38]:382), which was never convincingly demonstrated. Thus no link was proposed, in the case of Africa, between human evolution and the exclusion of elephants from the human diet, and no evolutionary reasoning was offered for the emergence of H. sapiens in Africa [39].

In Europe, H. erectus was replaced by H. heidelbergensis [40] and later by hominins associated with the Neanderthal evolutionary lineage [41]. In spite of significant cultural changes, such as the adoption of the Levallois technique and the common use of fire, the manufacture and use of handaxes and the association with large game persisted in post-erectus Europe until the demise of the Neandertals, around 30 kyr BP (e.g., [42]). H. sapiens did not evolve in Europe but migrated to it no earlier than 40 kyr BP (e.g., [43]).

And this is what the link says:

Evolution in the Middle East

Modern humans evolved in Africa 200,000 years ago, says Dr. Barkai, and the ruling paradigm is that this was their first worldwide appearance. Archaeological records tell us that elephants in Africa disappeared alongside the Acheulian culture with the emergence of modern humans there. Though elephants can be found today in Africa, few species survived and no evidence of the animal can be found in archaeological sites after 200,000 years ago. The similarity to the circumstances of the Middle East 400,000 years ago is no coincidence, claim the researchers. Not only do their findings on elephants and the Homo erectus diet give a long-awaited explanation for the evolution of modern humans, but they also call what scientists know about the "birth-place" of modern man into question.

Evidence from the Qesem Cave corroborates this revolutionary timeline. Findings from the site dated from as long as 400,000 years ago, clearly indicate the presence of new and innovative human behavior and a new human type. This sets the stage for a new understanding of the human story, says Prof. Gopher.

And this is what I say: Whut?
posted by infini at 7:37 AM on December 14, 2011

If I am out in the bush with a sharp stick, even a stick with a flaked stone on the tip, and I encounter a herd of elephants, I would suspect that there would be a good chance that I would be stomped to death, should I and my mates try to kill one, or, at best, come home hungry.

Elephants are fast and smart and can be pretty mean. . .
posted by Danf at 8:12 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Color me dubious on this one.
posted by y2karl at 8:22 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Danf: If your livelihood depended on finding a way to kill an elephant I bet you could.
posted by TheRedArmy at 8:28 AM on December 14, 2011

We were smarter than elephants back then, too.
posted by TheRedArmy at 8:29 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Elephants help each other and are big. They probaly were trapped by the use of nets and pits.
There still some people who used to hunt Forest Elephants that way.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:58 AM on December 14, 2011

Elephants are hard and dangerous to kill. Gathering and scavenging are much easier.

They're smart, too, but in different ways.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:59 AM on December 14, 2011

Elephants are hard and dangerous to kill.

Donkeys, on the other hand...
posted by yoink at 10:01 AM on December 14, 2011

Here is the discussion of it on the excellent Dieneke's Anthropology Blog. A lot of the theory section of the paper is from John Speth's excellent book. But every anthropologist I've talked to agrees that this paper is majorly overreaching. It's going to get a lot of discussion because of that though!

Most papers on data like this are as dry as bones (heheh), but almost 40% or so of this paper is fun, readable, and has not much to do with their data. And it's full of weird misdirections. They start talking about isotopic data showing that USOs (underground storage organs, in layman's terms tubers and roots) weren't a major part of the diet and then admit that this type of data can't tell us much about the role of USOs because it only shows where protein in the diet came from, which USOs have very little of. Why did they bring it up in the first place?

And the idea that having to hunt small game is more advanced is a little dubious, considering all sorts of primates with relatively small brains hunt small game quite effectively.
posted by melissam at 10:14 AM on December 14, 2011

i got yer elephant right here.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 10:49 AM on December 14, 2011

Why did they bring it up in the first place?

Because they scientists, and scientists gotta go down every rabbit hole in order to say, nope, no rabbit here
posted by infini at 11:02 AM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

You'd think killing elephants would take more brains than killing small prey; what with the cooperation and communication and such.
posted by ryanrs at 11:13 AM on December 14, 2011

Elephants are hard and dangerous to kill. Gathering and scavenging are much easier.

Dudes, we're talking about today's elephants - these are the ones that survived. The extinct elephants were undoubtedly slower and more doughnut-like.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:38 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bring Back the Elephants
posted by homunculus at 8:16 PM on December 14, 2011

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