Did Lucy eat meat?

August 11, 2010 • 1:14 pm

According to the New York Timesa paper to be published in tomorrow’s Nature reports indications of meat-eating in the hominin Australopithecus afarensis.   The paper, by S. P. McPherron et al., shows cut marks on animal bones that date back at least 3.4 million years and were found in a formation in Ethiopia where fossils of A. afarensis also occur.  The authors claim that these cut marks could have been made only by hominins wielding stone tools:

Fig. 2 from the Nature paper, showing an ungulate rib with putative cut marks.  Scale on SEM photos is 100 microns.

This finding, if true, pushes back the earliest hominin use of stone tools by a staggering 800,000 years.  It’s sure to be controversial, especially since no stone tools have been found at the site.  Indeed, scientists quoted in the Times story are casting strong doubt on the conclusions.  Stay tuned.


S. P. McPherron et al. 2010. Evidence for stone-tool-assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia.  Nature 466:857-860. doi:10.1038/nature09248

27 thoughts on “Did Lucy eat meat?

  1. If A Afarensis did eat meat, that will bolster the idea that cerebral growth starting with H Erectus was not spurred by eating meat, but by cooking.

  2. Layperson question: why stone tools and not just stones used as tools? I mean, without particular preparation of the stone.
    Chimps do use stones as tools nowadays. And they carry them as well.

    Damn, I must read the paper now.

    1. The story says, “Whether these individuals made the tools or only selected naturally sharpened pieces of stone, the scientists added, was not yet determined.” I would think that would be hard to determine without finding the actual tools.

      1. Wow! I’d think that early hominins probably lacked the dexterity (or imagination?) to fashion tools out of rock, but may have been clever enough to look for and find naturally occurring objects. So if one goes about looking for signs that Lucy’s people made tools, they probably won’t find it.

        Either way, if they really did use ‘tools’ that long ago, its quite amazing.

        1. From John Hawks’ site, citing Braun’s accompanying piece:

          Analyses of the hand of A. afarensis show that it had relatively short fingers that would allow the kind of fine-scale manipulation necessary for tool use (7).

      2. Thank you tomh, I read the paper already and in fact the way the term “stone tools” is used shouldn’t have seem curious to me.

        Let’s hope they will find those tools around.

    2. Just using stones that were already sharp seems more likely. Even monkeys use stones as tools sometimes.

      Chimps and a few other animals even make tools occasionally — usually something simple like stripping a stick to use to root something out, but this even requires considerable intelligence. It seems reasonable that early hominids could do this and more.

      If they find evidence of stone tool making, now that would be really amazing.

  3. Note that, unlike claims by Intelligent Design Creationists would have you believe, this hypothesis of design in paleontology requires explicit knowledge of who allegedly did the cutting, for what purpose, and the tools available to them to do it. Actual experiments might be performed to compare cut marks made by said tools and marks made by various other activities.

  4. Cool. NB if you have an iPhone or an iPad, you can get a free Nature.com app and get *all* the content, free. I’m reading the article on my iPhone now. It says the cut marks are “unambiguous”.

      1. What’s surprising is not so mcuh the app being free but the content. You normally have to pay ££/$$ for this. Maybe content too will go behind the paywall in a week or so. It’s not clear from the website. Anybody have any idea?

  5. Seems to be that once a hominid started choosing stones to use for specific purposes he or she would quickly realize that deliberately enhancing the utilitarian attributes of suitable stones would be a helpful thing to do. It’s a small-brainer.

  6. I have just got the iPad application, which looks good.

    Is it plausible that Australopithecus afarensis had stone tools?

    I think that it is. Their brain capacity was about 30% greater than modern chimps, so they were probably smart enough, and also needed to have a diet good enough to support a larger brain.

    I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the paper turns out to be correct.

  7. I wonder what the evidence is for the claim that the marks can “only be made by stone tools”? Such statements always make me very suspicious; it sounds too much like “only god could have done this”. If stone tools were indeed used, then why are there so few marks on that rib? Even with a heavy steel cleaver and much experience there are times when I leave numerous marks on ribs; I cannot imagine how a stone tool can be more effective at cutting/breaking than a steel tool, even if it is wielded by a powerful ape. Of course the ape could simply have picked up a piece of bone to test if its stone tool were nice and sharp and after making 2 notches decided that the tool is indeed sharp enough and cast the bone aside.

    At the very least the authors should come up with a list of other ideas of how the marks were made and why those ideas were discarded. If the “stone tools” is the only notion they have, then this is likely to be nothing more than a case of bias.

    1. Knowing next to nothing about stone tools, I can’t help but think that your question answered itself: a meat cleaver is a much more potent tool than a stone “knife” and thus will leave many more marks. And I doubt a rock is better at removing meat; preparing dinner with one probably took a lot longer than it would with a steel cutter.

      What else could have made the marks? What else is there? They don’t look like tooth marks, which doesn’t leave much.

      But what do I know.

  8. Perhaps the most primitive of manufactured stone tools would be too hard to definitively identify as such? I mean, a lot of H erectus tools just look like broken rocks to me, but I’m not a specialist.

        1. It’s probably the other way around — the Far Side cartoon was ca 1986. It’s a pity I couldn’t find it on the web, but of course it’s copyrighted anyway.

          1. You are right.
            From the discussion:

            The title of this paper refers to a Gary Larson cartoon that reads “So what’s this? I asked for a hammer! A hammer! This is a crescent wrench!…Well, maybe it’s a hammer…Damn these stone tools” ([Larson, 1986 G. Larson, The Far Side Gallery 2, Andrews McMeel, Kansas City (1986)]). This cartoon illustrates a fundamental issue in Paleolithic archaeology—the problem of understanding stone-tool function.

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