Butcher May Be the World's Real Oldest Profession: 3.4-Million-Year-Old Bones Bear Earliest Sign of Carnivory
Bower, Bruce, Science News
For Lucy and her comrades, raw meat sliced off animal carcasses was what's for dinner. That's the implication of a study published in the Aug. 12 Nature describing butchery marks on two animal bones from about 3.4 million years ago.
If the new analysis holds up, it provides the oldest evidence so far of stone-tool use and meat eating by members of the human evolutionary family. It's also the first sign of such behavior in hominids preceding the Homo lineage, which includes modern humans, say archaeologist Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
McPherron and his colleagues discovered the fossils in Ethiopia's Dikika area.
Until now, the oldest animal bones bearing stone-tool butchery marks came from another Ethiopian site, Bouri, and were dated to 2.5 million years ago (SN." 4/24/99, p. 262). Researchers found the oldest known stone tools, estimated to be 2.6 million to 2.5 million years old, at nearby Gona, Ethiopia. Those implements were fashioned from select types of rock, suggesting that stone tool-making began much earlier (SN: 4/17/04,p. 254).
A long-standing hypothesis holds that meat eating enabled by stone implements rapidly spurred Homo evolution sometime after 2.5 million years ago, especially brain enlargement. "Our finds show that meat eating began much deeper in time and did not lead immediately to the origins of the genus Homo and associated biological changes, particularly larger brains," McPherron says.
The fossils place Australopithecus afarensis--best known for Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old partial female skeleton excavated in Ethiopia in 1974--as the oldest known carnivorous wielder of stone tools. Lucy's kind lived in East Africa from about 4 million to 3 million years ago.
No evidence of hunting or fire use exists for Lucy's species. Her kind must have competed with other scavengers to salvage meat from animal carcasses, McPherron proposes. …