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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Support Administrator - Part Time

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the South West'...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding business based in ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - Scotland

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - North East Region

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas