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Evolution | Homo erectus

The Sunday Times

Nature's prey

About the time my father took me to see Kubrick's movie, Desmond Morris fronted a TV show, Zoo Time, which, as I recall, included chimpanzee tea parties, in which the animals were dressed in clothes. In his book, Naked Ape, Morris was equally at one with the times in synthesising Dart's theory with the ape observations of Jane Goodall - and later with those of two other disproportionately influential young women installed by Louis Leakey (Dian Fossey, gorillas, and Birute Galdikas, orangutans) - to repackage African Genesis as zoology.

"With strong pressure on them to increase their prey-killing prowess, vital changes began to take place," was how Morris explained the transformation from Australopithecus to Homo. "They became more upright - fast, better runners. Their hands became freed from locomotion duties - strong, efficient weapon-holders. Their brains became more complex - brighter, quicker decision-makers. These things did not follow one another in a major set sequence; they blossomed together, minute advances being made first in one quality and then in another, each urging the other on. A hunting ape, a killer ape, was in the making."

Morris's well-titled book has never gone out of print (or amended to take account of its falsification), but the new investigations in Kenya and Tanzania kick dust in his naked ape's face. Studies of australopithecine pelvises show, for instance, that upright posture preceded major brain expansion by some two million years, and almost every clue gleaned by every relevant specialist reworking the Leakey's once jealously-guarded domains shows that, whatever our ancestors did on these landscapes, they certainly didn't command.

Most critically, new evidence suggests that early hominids, at most, ate meat only as a last resort. Dental studies by an English anatomist, Alan Walker of Johns Hopkins University, have revealed no sign that australopithecines ever consumed flesh, but plenty of it chomping on roots and nuts. And similar studies, combined with laboratory analysis of fossil site debris, suggests that Homo erectus was also firmly vegetarian, although sometimes driven to scavenge dead animals.

"The hunting scenario is now totally out of the window," said Richard Potts, fellow of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, who is leading large-scale excavations at Olorgesailie in southern Kenya. "There is clear evidence from studying the archaeological remains from early sites - that is, starting from around 2.5 million and especially around 2 million years ago - where we have very nice bone preservation. And we see evidence that early humans were exploiting certain animals, but there is no indication that they were hunting them. There is clear evidence that they were getting the bones and cutting meat off them, and there is clear evidence that they were smashing the bones for bone marrow. But that's about as far as we can go. The first clear evidence we see of hominids as aggressive hunters is not until very late in the archaeological record: within the last 100,000 years."

One research approach that has clinched this part of the argument are re-examination of museum fossils previously trayed as hominid kills. Under electron microscopes, it has been possible to determine in what order bones were gnawed at by wild dogs or cats and slashed at with the stone tools of our ancestors. In key locations, these studies suggests that Homo got to animal carcasses after their four-legged rivals - sometimes (evidenced by scrupulous fieldwork) after by pelting dogs with rocks.

Far from the demeanour of Dart's triumphant hunters, evidence suggests that Homo erectus must have skulked warily among the trees that lined the rivers and lakes - or literally been running scared. Hominids have always been among the frailest midsize mammals, especially when encumbered by babies. For creatures who were smaller and weaker than we are, and with brains upwards of half the size of mine, you need only need to get stuck mud on the Serengeti, as my Hyundai, to know how quiet and scary the savannah gets before a Land Rover arrives to drag you out.

The uncomfortable truth for Dart's hypothesis was that even Homo erectus, much less Australopithecus, wasn't ruthlessly killing beasts, "young and old". Such bloodthirsty pursuits were the other way around: the beasts were killing our forebears. These were landscapes on which heroes died. It was cowards who multiplied.

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Evolution | Homo erectus
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