An ancient species of humans known as Homo erectus could have gone extinct because they simply weren’t working hard enough, according to a study recently published in PLOS One.
To gain a peek into the lives of our ancestors, researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) analyzed thousands of artifacts, including cores, flakes, hand axes, and cleavers, at a site on the Arabian Peninsula during the Lower Paleolithic Period some 2.5 million to 200,000 years ago. It appears the H. erectus living here at the time gathered resources and made tools with minimal effort.
"They really don't seem to have been pushing themselves," said lead researcher Ceri Shipton in a statement.
“I don't get the sense they were explorers looking over the horizon. They didn't have that same sense of wonder that we have."
It shows how they adapted – and didn’t – to their home at the headwaters of two major extinct river systems. Here, water and rocks were easily accessible, so why not let the goods come to them?
"At the site, we looked at there was a big rocky outcrop of quality stone just a short distance away up a small hill,” said Shipton. “But rather than walk up the hill they would just use whatever bits had rolled down and were lying at the bottom.”
A rocky outcrop could be found just a short distance away from the site, but archaeologists did not find any signs of activity, artifacts, or quarrying rock.
"They knew it was there, but because they had enough adequate resources they seem to have thought, 'why bother?'"
Their minimal-effort lifestyle proved effective for a bit. The authors note they were “strong and successful for some time,” but their inability to advance technologically was ultimately their downfall. Compared to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, who climbed mountains and transported tool-making resources over long distances, H. erectus did not advance their tools at a rate that would ensure their survival. Sediment samples indicate that the environment on the Arabian Peninsula gradually dried into a desert, but despite this changing landscape, the tools used by H. erectus stayed the same in composition and size.
"Not only were they lazy, but they were also very conservative," said Shipton. "There was no progression at all, and their tools are never very far from these now dry river beds. I think in the end the environment just got too dry for them."