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
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine