Thousands of years before we even existed as a species, ancient hominins had already made a break for it out of Africa. Evidence of ancient human species living in the Middle East provides a wealth of information, including thousands of stone tools showcasing their sophisticated craftsmanship, but now researchers have discovered what they think is the oldest direct evidence of animal butchering, which also gives a glimpse into what they were surviving on.
By analyzing protein residue on fragments of stone tools found in Jordan dating to 250,000 years ago, researchers claim to have uncovered the first direct evidence of ancient hominins feasting on specific animals. From their study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, they were able to determine that the ancient humans living in the region at the time were hunting a wide variety of prey, including horses, camels, ducks, and even rhinoceroses. The vast number of tools uncovered, in this case more than 10,000, also indicates that while it was once presumed that the arid Arabian Peninsula was largely unoccupied, there were in fact fairly large populations of hominins living there.
“Researchers have known for decades about carnivorous behaviors by tool-making hominins dating back 2.5 million years, but now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of exploitation by our Stone Age ancestors of specific animals for subsistence,” explains the University of Victoria’s April Nowell. “The hominins in this region were clearly adaptable and capable of taking advantage of a wide range of available prey, from rhinoceros to ducks, in an extremely challenging environment.”
Some of the remaining wetlands where the tools were uncovered. Jessica Hoskins/University of Victoria
While today the region is an arid desert, back when the ancient humans were first crafting the tools the area was a verdant wetland. Starting around 250,000 years ago, when these tools were knapped, the marshes began to dry out, which would have forced those living there to adapt and widen their diet. This is a tactic seen in modern humans today, who broaden their foraging strategies to incorporate a wider variety of food stuff when living in extreme environments.
By finding that different species of ancient humans living in the Middle East a quarter of a million years ago were also exploiting a wide prey base, the researchers show that they were also capable of this previously thought complex behavioral adaptation. “What this tells us about their lives and complex strategies for survival, such as the highly variable techniques for prey exploitation, as well as predator avoidance and protection of carcasses for food, significantly diverges from what we might expect from this extinct species,” says Nowell.
By the time modern humans rocked up on the scene, they would have found at least two species of human had made it there before them, but that didn't stop them from interacting, and even mating.