Male strategies and Plio-Pleistocene archaeology.
Archaeological data are frequently cited in support of the idea that big game hunting drove the evolution of early Homo, mainly through its role in offspring provisioning. This argument has been disputed on two grounds: (1) ethnographic observations on modern foragers show that although hunting may contribute a large fraction of the overall diet, it is an unreliable day-to-day food source, pursued more for status than subsistence; (2) archaeological evidence from the Plio-Pleistocene, coincident with the emergence of Homo can be read to reflect low-yield scavenging, not hunting. Our review of the archaeology yields results consistent with these critiques: (1) early humans acquired large-bodied ungulates primarily by aggressive scavenging, not hunting; (2) meat was consumed at or near the point of acquisition, not at home bases, as the hunting hypothesis requires; (3) carcasses were taken at highly variable rates and in varying degrees of completeness, making meat from big game an even less reliable food source than it is among modern foragers. Collectively, Plio-Pleistocene site location and assemblage composition are consistent with the hypothesis that large carcasses were taken not for purposes of provisioning, but in the context of competitive male displays. Even if meat were acquired more reliably than the archaeology indicates, its consumption cannot account for the significant changes in life history now seen to distinguish early humans from ancestral australopiths. The coincidence between the earliest dates for Homo ergaster and an increase in the archaeological visibility of meat eating that many find so provocative instead reflects: (1) changes in the structure of the environment that concentrated scavenging opportunities in space, making evidence of their pursuit more obvious to archaeologists; (2) H. ergaster's larger body size (itself a consequence of other factors), which improved its ability at interference competition.