Rethinking Early Hominids as Scavenger-Gatherers

Yih-da Edward Hsieh

Across most scientific, philosophical and social disciplines, there is a widely accepted perception of early man as a hunter-gatherer; that is, man is a member of a group which supports itself by hunting wildlife and gathering fruits/vegetables. Today, scientists and theorists take this concept as fact, only exploring the idea, which most believe, that our ancestors consumed a large amount of fruits and very little meat. They reason that there is a high risk (health, safety or otherwise) towards hunting animals that produce low returns; whereas, plants foods are easily acquired and produce relatively high returns.

Albeit a sound theory, it fails to take into account a derivative question - if hunting was less efficient than gathering, then why didn’t early man simply drop the act of hunting altogether? In addition, due to the risks associated with hunting, the evolution of hunting should have occurred only after technology permitted effective hunting tools and techniques. And therefore, the “hunter-gatherer” label for early man is a misnomer as hominids more primitive than Homo erectus are better characterized as a “gatherer-scavenger.”

During the Pliocene and early Pleistocene eras, there was no scarcity in plant foods that would require early man to hunt as a supplementary food source. In a study of the bushmen of south-west Africa, researchers found that the bushmen gathered 84 different species of food plants which were already a nutritionally sufficient food source. In fact, the bushmen required only 23 of these food plants as sustenance to maintain a healthy herbivore lifestyle. The main staple of their diet is a mongongo nut obtained from a drought-resistant tree containing more calories than cereal crops and more protein than beef (Ponting, 20). The sheer reliability of the mongongo nut even dissuades the bushmen from developing agriculture. As one bushman deftly puts it, “Why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” (Ponting, 21) Clearly, the environment is capable of supporting a solely vegetarian diet with no need for a supplementary meat source.

Most present-day man would cringe at the thought of a vegetarian diet mostly comprised of nuts. And therefore, it is safe to suggest that a similar problem occurred with early man – that is, early man may have craved meat and preferred an omnivorous lifestyle. To further explore the proposed “scavenger-gatherer” model, it is important to consider the possibility that an innate desire for meat trumps the economic advantage of a vegetarian diet (low risk/high return). However, the likelihood that early man craved meat is very minimal as the archaeological record of hunter-gatherer diets over the last 30,000 years shows independent, but synchronous changes in the relative proportions of plant foods in hunter-gatherer diets. These dietary changes are concurrent with major climatic changes in history, which affected the availability of plant foods (Hawkes et al. 1982). These correlations between climate and certain plant growth suggest that early man’s diet was regulated by the accessibility of food, rather than the desirability for certain foods.

As previously argued that hunting is unnecessary for early man’s survival, it is presumptuous to assume that hunting made no other contributions to early hominid livelihood. Obviously, hunting provided an additional source of food; and honestly, it is better to squander excess food than live with meager rations. However, unlike gathering, hunting was not economically efficient or easily accessible. The costs of hunting animals greatly outweighed the returns gained from a successful hunt. In terms of their ability to hunt, early hominids barely matched the skills of those top carnivores in their ecosystems. Even with some help from technology, early man lacked the speed and strength of those lions and tigers at the top of the primitive food chain. Consequently, studies have shown that carnivores “only make a kill about once in every ten attempts” (Ponting, 21). Therefore, early hominids would have achieved very low rates of success when hunting, making hunting economically inefficient and unnecessary.

While hunting seems unlikely in the pre-Holocene time period, due to this lack of technology, the likelihood of early hominids to act as scavengers might also seem questionable. Scavenging has its disadvantages as it requires long distance movement and competition with other scavengers. However, while early man lacked the speed and strength to be successful predators, they were able to fit into a part-time scavenger role as long as their diet was heavily supplemented by fruits and nuts. Foraging for carcasses would have been highly compatible with foraging for fruits. Both require searching for widely distributed food sources for a prolonged period of time. In addition, man’s bipedal movement appears perfectly designed for just this type of foraging. As quadruped predators moved at rapid speeds for a short period of time, man maintained a steady and strolling pace for very long periods (Lewin, 1984).

Recent studies also support this scavenger-gatherer model for early hominids. In the late 1970s, archaeologists discovered a vast collection of fossil bones from a site at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Unique to the bones were signs of stone tool use, in the form of cutmarks. Originally, these cutmarks led archaeologists to conclude that meat eating was a significant component of early hominid behavior. However, the latest research has elucidated a different interpretation to said cutmarks; that is, that the marks are the early signs of scavenging. More than 50 percent of the cutmarks were present in body regions where there would be little meat, indicating that the carcasses were scavenged for their skins and tendons. Another piece of evidence pointing towards scavenging was the discovery of overlapping cutmarks and carnivore tooth marks. If the early man was a hunter, other carnivores would feast on the remains of his prey leaving carnivore tooth marks over manmade cutmarks. However, the majority of the fossils show cutmarks over tooth marks, indicating that early man scavenged carnivore spoils (Shipman, 1986).

Although it is more accurate to describe early man as scavenger-gatherers as opposed to hunter-gatherers, not all early hominids fit into this new designation because researchers only possess a limited timeline of man’s development and “nutritional evolution.” There are extensive records of systematic hunting in human history; however, these discoveries mostly involveHomo erectus, who evolved millions of years after those early hominids studied in this discussion. The time period between the end of scavenging and the onset of hunting is unclear. The assumption is that hunting developed and progressed once the efficiency of hunting meat equals or exceeds that of the efficiency of gathering plants foods. This transition from scavenging to hunting requires further investigations in order to identify a proper timeline between that of early hominids to the period of Homo erectus.

Works Cited

Hawkes, K., Hill, K., O’Connell, J.F. May, 1982. Why Hunters Gather: Optimal Foraging and the Ache of Eastern Paraguay. J.American Ethnologist, Vol. 9, No. 2, Economic and Ecological Processes in Society and Culture. pp. 379-398.

Lewin, R. May 25, 1984. Man the Scavenger. J.Science, New Series, Vol. 224, No. 4651. pp. 861-862.

Ponting, C. 1993. A Green History of the World. St. Martin’s Press, NY, pp.18-67

Shipman, P. March, 1986. Scavenging or Hunting in Early Hominids: Theoretical Framework and Tests. J. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 88, No. 1. pp. 27-43.


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