Recently archaeologists in northeast Jordan have discovered the oldest known tools with identifiable protein residues—the residual remains of butchered animals.1 Between 2013 and 2015, a team of archeologists excavated 7,000 tools used by hominins around 250,000 years ago. These tools provide significant insights into the hunting sophistication of early proto-humans.
More importantly, the study further discredits the myth that early hominins were predominantly vegetarians.
First, let’s examine what this new archeological evidence reveals about ancient hominins from present-day Jordan. The specific location is the Azraq Basin of Jordan’s Eastern Desert, a hominin habitat for the past 300,000 years. Its first inhabitants were attracted by a large oasis, which was fed by springs originating in the basin’s upper aquifer.
During the 20th century, the area’s marshes began drying up as nearby cities overexploited fresh water supplies. Though unfortunate, this overconsumption benefited archaeologists by giving them access to deeply buried layers. The authors of this new study refer to the Azraq Basin as “one of the richest archaeological and paleontological landscapes in the Middle East.”1
Of the 7,000 excavated tools, the research team identified 44 as candidates for testing. Seventeen of the tested tools revealed protein residues from a wide range of animals, including rhinoceros, duck, horse, camel, and bovine.
Their discoveries suggest startling conclusions about the early hominins’ survival capacity in challenging environments, including “a reliance on surprisingly human-like adaptations including a broadened subsistence base, modified tool kit, and strategies for predator avoidance and carcass protection.”
The duck residues are interesting because they suggest that early hominins were sophisticated hunters, not merely scavengers as they are sometimes portrayed. “Ducks were likely hunted rather than scavenged,” the authors write, “because of the low probability of hominins finding scavengeable avian remains.” Nighttime duck hunting, they explain, would have been easier than daytime hunting because ducks are reluctant to leave their nests at night.
However, these ducks nested near the oasis where other predators lurked. Therefore, nighttime hunting “would have been a dangerous endeavor and it is more likely that they hunted ducks by day.”
These hominins, the researchers concluded, likely had sophisticated tools, similar to boomerangs, which they used for daytime duck hunting. Furthermore, their wide variety of prey suggests they were extremely opportunistic hunters with strong adaptation abilities.
The researchers write, “It is possible that these hominins practiced a very human-like division of labor, one that was highly divergent from non-human primate foraging strategies, and that, based on studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies, may have included specialized task groups, task-specific implements and strategies for competing with or avoiding the other predatory species in the area.”
Yes, Early Hominins Were Carnivorous
The animal protein residues found on the hunting and butchering tools provides strong evidence that these hominins were sophisticated hunters at least 250,000 years ago.
Other abundant evidence suggests that hominins have been eating significant quantities of animal foods since starting 2 million years ago – the time Homo erectus emerged on the evolutionary stage. In fact, most evolutionary biologists and paleontologist attribute the larger brain, shorter digestive tract, and smaller jaws and teeth of Homo erectus (compared to earlier predecessors) to the consumption of energy-dense animal food.
Nevertheless, in certain corners of the Internet, as well in the scientific community, a belief persists that early hominins were primarily vegetarians who occasionally consumed limited quantities of scavenged, but not hunted, animal foods.
Colin Campbell, for example, a prominent advocate of veganism argues, “I don’t accept the premise that during the course of evolution we developed as carnivores. I accept the evidence showing that some animal based foods have been consumed for a long time but I am not convinced that it was very much. I also have seen some remarkably convincing arguments that we evolved mostly as herbivores, based on a consideration of anatomical and morphological evidence.”2
Campbell’s “anatomical and morphological evidence” echoes a 2012 Scientific American article titled, “Human Ancestors Were Nearly All Vegetarians,” which makes the case that our digestive tracts are “remarkably similar” to those of the great apes and therefore the real “paleo diet” is the 30 million-year-old primate diet – vegetal foods and insects with only small amounts of animal foods.3 This conclusion, however, ignores important evolutionary shifts in the ensuing 5 to 7 million years since hominins diverged from the great apes.
It’s true that early hominins probably had diets similar to those of the great apes, including large quantities of fruit, leaves, flowers, bark, and insects plus smaller amounts of meat.4,5, However, these diets diverged a long time ago even by evolutionary standards. For example, around 3.5 million years ago, hominins started incorporating relatively more starchy foods into their diets.6
The next major divergence was characterized by increased reliance on animal foods, particularly for Homo erectus, starting around 2 million years.7 This dietary shift catalyzed biological and physiological changes, including decreased tooth and gut size, as well as increased body and brain mass.8 So although early hominin digestive tracts were similar to those of the great apes, hominin diets and physiology has changed markedly during the more than two million years hominins evolved into present day humans.
In support of the “vegetarian hominin” postulation, the Scientific American article cites a 2012 study which found that Neanderthals (who lived in Eurasia from 200,000 to 30,000 years ago) ate more plant food than previously believed.9 But this evidence is still a far cry from the theory that Neanderthal or other hominins were primarily vegetarian. A more reasonable explanation would be that they ate “paleo diets” typical of the past two million years, meaning a wide variety of hunted animal foods and foraged vegetable foods which were available seasonally.
It has often been said that meat made us human. Although we evolved from primarily vegetarian primates, the inclusion of animal foods within the diets of early hominins enabled the evolution of larger brains and other important physiological changes on the way to becoming human. We’ve been eating animal food in significant quantities for quite some time – probably two million years or more. But now, thanks to evidence found at the Azraq Basin archeological site, it is indisputable that for at least 250,000 years our hominin ancestors have been sophisticated, strategic hunters of a large variety of both large and small animals.