How Lucy's meat-eating made us what we are now

The point in prehistory when our early ancestors first picked up a sharp-edged stone to butcher animals has been pushed much further back in time with the discovery of ancient bones.

Scientists working at an archaeological site in Ethiopia have discovered two animal bones with the distinctive cut marks of stone tools that the researchers believe were used to scrape or slice chunks of meat from carcasses some 3.4 million years ago.

The bones, which also show evidence of being broken open to extract highly nutritious marrow, are evidence that our ancestors were organised carnivores a million years earlier than previously understood.

The butchery of animals in such a deliberate manner with stone tools has never been observed in such ancient fossils. Until now, the oldest evidence of butchery comes from the discovery of similar cut marks on animal bones about 2.5 million years old, which is nearly as old as the oldest stone tools, dated to about 2.4 million years ago.

The scientists who made the discovery, led by Zeresenay Alemseged of the California Academy of Sciences, believe that the find shows that the ancestors of humans developed a taste for meat eating and butchery that long predated the point at which it was thought that man shifted to a largely carnivorous diet in order to feed the high-energy demands of a bigger brain.

Dr Alemseged and his colleagues believe that the butchery at the site of Dikika in the Afar region of Ethiopia was probably carried out by the only known hominin to be living in the area at the time, a small-brained, bipedal creature called Australopithecus afarensis, of which the most famous member is "Lucy", a female whose remains were discovered in 1974.

"This discovery dramatically shifts the known timeframe of a game-changing behaviour for our ancestors. Tool use fundamentally altered the way our early ancestors interacted with nature, allowing them to eat new types of food and exploit new territories," Dr Alemseged said.

"This find will definitely force us to revise our textbooks on human evolution since it pushes the evidence for tool use and meat-eating in our family back by nearly a million years. These developments had a huge impact on the story of humanity," he said.

The butchered bones – a fragment of rib and a shaft of a femur, or thigh bone – belong to two ungulate mammals, possibly goat or bison, which the scientists suspect had died of other causes and were then scavenged by a band of hominins. The bones were found between two volcanic layers in the ground, respectively dated at 3.42 and 3.24 million years old, but were lying closer to the older volcanic layer, suggesting they were nearer to 3.4 million years old.

In addition to the distinctive cut marks, the scientists found evidence that the bones had been pounded to extract the marrow. They also found a microscopic piece of stone embedded in one of the cut marks, which is possibly a remnant of the stone tool itself. A detailed analysis ruled out other possible causes of the marks, such as the teeth of a carnivore.

Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig said that the source of the stone tools, which were made from volcanic rock, was likely to be several kilometres away. "The hominins at this site probably carried their stone tools with them from better raw material sources elsewhere," Dr McPherron said.

The site of the discovery is just 200 metres from the place where in 2006 Dr Alemseged and colleagues found the fossilised skeleton of an infant A. afarensis girl, known as "Lucy's baby". "The only hominin species we have in this part of Africa at this time period is A. afarensis, and so we think this species inflicted these cut marks on the bones we discovered," Dr Alemseged said.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

News
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way

News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Year 4 Teacher required for 2 terms

£21500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

Accounts Assistant - Sales Ledger, Sage Line 50 - St Albans

£20000 - £22000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and w...

EBD Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a quailed Teacher ...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?