When did humans start eating meat?

There are many differences between us and other apes. One is our love for eating meat. But just how old is that love? Which of our ancestors was the first meat eater?


Humans eat more meat than any other living primate. This might just seem like a fun little fact, but it could actually be the secret to our success. Some scientists think eating meat provided the fuel for our big brains.

So to understand why humans took over the world, we need to figure out when meat took over our lives. Figuring out when this happened is a bit tricky as it turns out our ancestors didn’t really keep cookery books.

Fortunately, they did do something that left a trace: they chopped up their food with stone tools. This leaves tell-tale marks on both the fossils and the tools. By studying them, scientists have discovered that eating meat might be very old indeed.

The first meat eaters

Our lineage split off from the other apes around 7 million years ago. Despite that, our lineage wasn’t recognisably human for most of that time. We would have looked like just another African ape (albeit an upright one). The famous Lucy fossil represents this period well.

Lucy with a human five year old. Despite their size similarity, Lucy was fully grown.

Even though these early humans were very different to us, they may have been the first meat eaters. The earliest evidence of cutmarks on bone comes from 3.3 million years ago. That’s only a hundred thousand years older than Lucy. In fact, the cut fossils were found <5km from her1!

This nearby site is called Dikika. There, scientists found several fossils on the surface with what appeared to be cutmarks. By looking at the sediment trapped on the fossils, they figured the bones came from a rock layer formed 3.39 – 3.24 million years ago. Also known as Lucy’s age1.

One of the bones from Dikika with alleged cutmarks on

However, this didn’t convince everyone. Surface finds cause issues as identifying the layer they came from is hard, particularly with the sediments at this site. It also means that they may have been damaged whilst on the surface. Experiments show that animals running over the bones could cause similar marks2.

Or it could be crocodiles. Researchers examined bones of their prey and found that crocodile teeth make a distinct V-shaped mark. This is surprisingly similar to the sort of damage produced by tools, but it is possible to tell the difference if you know what you’re looking for. So, knowing this, scientists re-examined early evidence of cut marks, including Dikika.

The results clearly showed that it wasn’t our ancestors eating meat 3 million years ago. It was crocodiles.

The real first meat eaters

Once you rule out possible crocodile bones there’s little evidence of meat eating during Lucy’s time. Only 13 other damaged bones from >2 million years ago have been found. Some fall in the small overlap between tool damage and crocodile damage, but that’s hardly compelling evidence3.

Instead, we have to look after 2 million years ago for solid evidence of the first humans eating meat3. This is important because it coincides with the evolution of Homo erectus. They were the first of our ancestors you’d probably recognise as “human.” Although they did have smaller brains and flatter foreheads, what does that matter between family?

A happy family reunion, with no judgement about brain size or forehead shape.

Several sites are known from this period with loads of cut marks that clearly aren’t crocodiles, including Olduvai Gorge and Koobi Fora4. Given the age of these sites, we can say with confidence humans started eating meat between 1.7 – 2 million years ago4.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that these fossils are without controversy. Debate remains over whether Homo erectus was actively hunting these animals, or just scavenging the kills of other predators4. However, by around 1.8 million years ago they were hunting at least parttime. Olduvai Gorge contains butchered prime-adults prey (which other predators tend to avoid).

So not only was Homo erectus hunting, it was good at it.

The mortality profiles for bovids that drowned, were killed by lions and found at Olduvai Gorge

Humans reliant on eating meat

Saying that humans started eating meat 1.7 – 2 million years ago is a bit of a lie. Chimps will hunt and eat meat today, sometimes with spears. They just don’t do it very often. Given we’re closely related to chimps, our early ancestors may also have been occasional hunters for millions of years. Maybe also with wooden spears.

Chimps use spears to kill

What we really want to know is when did humans start eating a lot of meat. When did we shift onto the modern-style diet, where meat can make up half of hunter-gatherers diet5.

Like pinpointing the origin of meat eating, this is hard to figure out. We can’t simply count up butchered fossils at a site to see how much meat Homo erectus ate. For all we know, that site could have formed over hundreds of years and represent a little bit of meat for each person, or formed quickly and represent a meat feast. That long ago we just don’t have the resolution to figure it out.

However, there is some circumstantial evidence Homo erectus was reliant on meat not long after they started hunting. There is a child that died 1.5 million years ago from vitamin b-12 deficiency. Most of us get our b-12 from, you guessed it, meat. Clearly, for this person was so reliant on meat that not having it killed them.

The fossil (bottom) and a modern human who lacks the vitamin (top)

Of course, that youngster might have just been a weird meat-freak. And Lucy could have hunted without us knowing. There’s a lot we still don’t know about when humans started eating meat. Just that it was a big deal when it happened.

References

  1. McPherron, S.P., Alemseged, Z., Marean, C.W., Wynn, J.G., Reed, D., Geraads, D., Bobe, R. and Béarat, H.A., 2010. Evidence for stone-tool-assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia. Nature466(7308), p.857.
  2. Domínguez-Rodrigo, M., Pickering, T.R. and Bunn, H.T., 2010. Configurational approach to identifying the earliest hominin butchers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences107(49), pp.20929-20934.
  3. Sahle, Y., El Zaatari, S. and White, T.D., 2017. Hominid butchers and biting crocodiles in the African Plio–Pleistocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences114(50), pp.13164-13169.
  4. Domínguez‐Rodrigo, M. and Pickering, T.R., 2003. Early hominid hunting and scavenging: a zooarcheological review. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews12(6), pp.275-282.
  5. Crittenden, A.N. and Schnorr, S.L., 2017. Current views on hunter‐gatherer nutrition and the evolution of the human diet. American journal of physical anthropology162(S63), pp.84-109.

Related posts



2 thoughts on “When did humans start eating meat?”

  1. leorivers says:

    From what I’ve read about the line between opportunistic early Homo scavenging of fellow hominins and Erectus cannibalism and a main diet of flesh eating and “fall back diet” cannibalism, might be a line unable to distinguish from remains, I can’t help but thinking of the width of the Baring straight allowing people to migrate from Asia to America the “one farm farther” method than a trek of one generation. LIons will prefer to eat something already laying down…

    1. Adam Benton says:

      One of the key pieces of evidence here is figuring out who got access to the carcass first. Butchery marks on a half-eaten carcass look different to those when you’ve got some fresh meat in front of you. But even then, the leap from “they got to eat the dead thing first” to “they killed the dead thing” might be a leap too far in some cases. It could be possible for large sites where we can look at the prey mortality profile, but for most of these early sites the remains are so sporadic it isn’t really possible.

Leave your filthy monkey comments here.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

When did humans start eating meat?

by Adam Benton
2
More in Ancient technology
Why were dogs domesticated?

Humans and wolves lived side by side for millennia before we turned them into dogs. So what changed? Why were dogs domesticated after co-existing for so long?

Close