Researchers: Early Man Not Big Hunters

ByABC News
January 9, 2003, 1:35 PM

Jan. 14 -- Man brought home the meat, well-fed children flourished, the human brain developed and humankind evolved. Or so the story goes.

Now anthropologists are reconsidering traditional theories about the importance of male hunting, of meat and of the so-called nuclear family in human evolution.

Instead, a renewed look at archaeological records and observations of a contemporary hunting and gathering tribe in East Africa suggest the key roles in nourishing the evolution of people's ancestors may have been played by females mothers and grandmothers.

Meanwhile, male hunting was likely more about elevating one's social status than providing for the family, researchers say.

"The return rate of hunting and scavenging large animals just doesn't pay off," explained James O'Connell, director of the Archaeological Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and lead author of a recent paper about the subject in Journal of Human Evolution. "You just can't make enough out of it to feed your kid."

Scavengers, Not Hunters

The idea that hunting and meat-eating helped trigger the evolution of modern man has been based largely on archaeological remains of Homo erectus, a species that lived in Africa and Asia approximately 2 million to 400,000 years ago.

These upright, long-armed hominids developed brains that were 50 percent larger than their predecessor's, Homo habilis. The question is how.

Based on sites containing jumbled collections of large animal bones and primitive tools, scientists developed a theory that Homo erectus males learned how to hunt large animals. This allowed them to bring their kill back to "home bases" where they shared the meat with women and children. The protein-rich meat helped the brain develop and evolution favored larger brains since hunting required the development of tools and strategy.

But O'Connell, his colleagues and authors of other recent studies have begun to cast doubt on that assumption.

"I think the brain change associated with meat-eating is overrated," he said.