It’s not hard to observe a fierce predator can be seen hunting for its next meal. In one swift motion, it captures its prey…the last frozen beef burrito at the store? You may not see yourself as an animal, nonetheless a predator, but before the development of agriculture, humans were active hunter- gatherers that competed with other animals for resources.
Instead of the physical traits commonly found in predators, hominins, which are humans and our fossil relatives, evolved the ability to make and use stone tools to enhance their hunting ability. The earliest stone tools are about 3.3 million years old. Could this be when hominins expanded into a predatory hunter niche? An excavation of a 1.7-million-year-old site in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania recovered thousands of mammal fossils and stone artifacts created by Homo habilis, a hominin about the size of a 9-year-old child.
Each fossil was examined for evidence of non-human carnivore tooth marks or stone tool marks from butchering. Many fossils had both carnivore and tool marks meaning that there was direct competition. Homo habilis’ stone tools were large and not optimized for hunting. However, they regularly fed from a wide variety of animals ranging from gazelle to elephant size.
Researchers deduce that Homo habilis scavenged the prey of nonhuman predators, potentially using group aggression to obtain early access to prey. While it’s unlikely that hominins filled a predatory hunter niche 3.3 million-years-ago, early hominin carnivory may have originated at that time.
Olduvai Gorge’s evidence of more refined tools corresponding with an aggressive form of scavenging and large prey consumption highlights a period of niche expansion, and provides context for how we evolved into the fierce predators known as humans.