Friday, 30 October 2015

The Not-So-Humble Hunter Gatherer

Before I start, I would like to address the fact that there has been a lack of terrible food puns in this blog so far. My good friend (rightly) pointed out to me that I was not delivering on the goods, as promised. Therefore, I would like to apologise if this has caused you as much upset as it caused him. I will be trying to make more of a conscious effort to include some from now on. I just hope they don’t sound too corny… CORN-y…

Anyway, moving our focus back to realm of food production… Today we will be having a butchers (I stole that one) at how food was obtained prior to the dawn of agriculture. To do this, we must first transport back in time, approximately two million years ago, to when early human civilisation was largely comprised of hunter-gatherers, originating in the African continent.

The timeline of food preparation from early to modern man. Source:

The main societal role of our nomadic ancestors was to forage and collect food for themselves and their social groups, with their menus mostly consisting of wild plants, nuts, berries and raw meat. Fire used for cooking was not introduced until approximately 100,000 years later, which has evidently revolutionised modern diets and the way we prepare food today. However, the environmental impacts of heightened fire activity may have been far-reaching, for example, through the disruption and change of natural environmental cycles. Fires (particularly wildfires) are mainly prevalent during wet seasons, due the higher probability of lightning strikes, but, (by using modelling) we can demonstrate how the use of fire by early man may have caused rapid spread of fire during dry seasons, due to the flammable nature of dried vegetation. This may have contributed to changes in climate, habitat and ecosystems, as well as alter the behaviour of certain species.
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The development of tools, such as the spear, would have permitted our ancestors to catch fish and hunt larger prey more efficiently, allowing a more versatile diet. However, this prevalence of tools led to increasing landscape changes through quarrying, and the moving and fracturing of rock (Foley and Lahr 2015). This extraction of raw material may have negatively affected the ecology of local areas by altering the natural habitat, but on the other hand, these pockets in the rock would have collected water more efficiently, allowing new ecosystems to thrive.

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During the late Pleistocene epoch (~10,000-15,000 years ago), it is postulated that the increasing intelligence and innovation of early man enabled them to engage in some sort of a killing frenzy by hunting more animals than necessary. (I guess you could say that they were having their cake and eating it to…) The hypothesis proceeds to suggest that this contributed to the Quaternary extinction event, which saw a massive decrease in megafauna, including the mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger. This is known as the Overkill Hypothesis, which (more specifically) suggests that as human’s migrated into North America, they were faced with a vast number of large species, too na├»ve to see humans as a threat, making them easy to hunt. This idea is widely debated, with some claiming that it is outdated, but I can’t help finding it interesting due to the coincidental timing of the booming population of man and decreasing population of megafauna. Then again, there could be other factors at play here, such as climatic changes. However, we cannot ignore the possibility that human intervention may have directly or indirectly contributed to this extinction. Regardless, current climate models suggest that this decrease in megafauna may have led to major changes in vegetation, causing an approximate 0.4 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature in localised areas.

So, despite the common conception that early hunter-gatherers were perfectly in tune with nature and their surroundings, it is possible that our ancient ancestors were the initial drivers of climate change, over 10,000 years ago. (Although, clearly on a much smaller scale than today!) Which leaves me thinking... Is it possible that climate change is somewhat a natural product of human evolution, and is maybe imperative to our survival? I hope to gain some more insight in to these questions over the next few months.

Join me next time as I pick up where we left off, 10,000 years ago, at the dawn of agriculture...