Redlining

If you take too many chances in the process of making a living, you’ll get yourself killed before you manage to raise a family.   Therefore there is a maximum sustainable risk per calorie acquired from hunting *.  If the average member of the species incurs too much risk, more than that sustainable maximum, the species goes extinct.  The Neanderthals must have come closer to that red line than anatomically modern humans in Africa, judging from their beat-up skeletons, which resemble those of rodeo riders.  They were almost entirely carnivorous, judging from isotopic studies, and that helps us understand all those fractures: they apparently had limited access to edible plants, which entail far lower risks. Tubers and berries seldom break your ribs.

In Africa, most calories probably came from plant foods back in the Middle Stone Age,  as they do in African hunter-gatherers today, and that fits too:  early African hunters seem to have mainly gone after relatively safe prey like eland, avoiding really dangerous animals  like cape buffalo.  This is not to say that they did not hunt, or that hunting was  unimportant, but they had alternatives.

Risk per calorie was particularly high among the Neanderthals because they seem to have had no way of storing meat – they had no drying racks or storage pits in frozen ground like those used by their successors.  Think of it this way: storage allow more complete usage of a large carcass such as a bison, that might weigh over a thousand pounds –  it wouldn’t be easy to eat all of that before it went bad.  Higher utilization – using all of the buffalo – drops the risk per calorie.

You might think that they could have chased rabbits or whatever, but that is relatively unrewarding.  It works a lot better if you can use nets or snares, but no evidence of such devices has been found among the Neanderthals.

It looks as if the Neanderthals had health insurance: surely someone else fed them while they were recovering from being hurt. You see the same pattern, to a degree, in lions, and it probably existed in sabertooths as well, since they often exhibit significant healed injuries.

In the recent extinctions, hunting megafauna must have been relatively safe.  The target species has to be attractive (a good food source), safe and easy enough to hunt, and have a low enough reproductive rate,  if they’re going to go extinct.  Rabbits are not very attractive, since they furnish a small amount of meat.  They’re safe to hunt, but not that easy to catch, and they have a high reproductive rate – so they’re not going to go extinct.  On the other end of the spectrum,  giant ground sloths furnished a lot of meat, and were easy to catch.  They were probably easy and safe to hunt using distance weapons like the atlatl, since they were slow.  They had a low reproductive rate.  Prime candidates for extinction.

So we can often understand the pattern, but why were mammoths rapidly wiped out in the Americas while elephants survived in Africa and south Asia?  I offer several possible explanations. First, North American mammoths had no evolved behavioral defenses against man – while Old World elephants had had time to acquire such adaptations.  That may have made hunting old world elephants far more dangerous, and therefore less attractive.  Second, there are areas in Africa that are almost uninhabitable, due to the tsetse fly. They may have acted as natural game preserves, and there are no equivalents in the Americas.  Third, the Babel effect: in the early days, paleoIndians likely had not yet split into different ethnic groups with different languages:  with less fighting among the early Indians, animals would not have had relatively border regions acting as refugia. Also, with fewer human-caused casualties, paleoindians could have taken more risks in hunting.

* this is an oversimplification.  The sustainable risk varies with age, sex, etc.

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23 Responses to Redlining

  1. dave chamberlin says:

    I read a story of a herd of african elephants that were such a nuisance to the local farmers that hunters were employed to kill them. The elephants quickly changed their habits before all of them could be shot. They hid in the dense jungle during the day and came out to feed at night. The hunters became the hunted, several of them going into the jungle where the elephants were hiding were trampled. The hunters quit and the diminished elephant herd still exists, and wouldn’t you know it they haven’t forgotten, they still have a reputation as some of the meanest and most dangerous elephants in Africa. African animals had a million years to adapt to the slowly increasing hunting skills of man. The hunters that eventually made it to the Americas had to survive in Berengia (Siberia and Manchuria) 20,000 years ago during an ice age. They had to be very tough and very smart to survive there so when they finally got to two continents ripe for the taking they didn’t waste very much time in doing exactly that.

  2. doug1111 says:

    Risk per calorie was particularly high among the Neanderthals because they seem to have had no way of storing meat – they had no drying racks or storage pits in frozen ground like those used by their successors. Think of it this way: storage allow more complete usage of a large carcass such as a bison, that might weigh over a thousand pounds – it wouldn’t be easy to eat all of that before it went bad. Higher utilization – using all of the buffalo – drops the risk per calorie.

    Amid all the talk/speculation over the last couple of years about how the Neanderthals may well have been a lot smarter than was previously believed, that seems pretty damn stupid/ non experimental/ unimaginative. This was after all a central problem in their lives. You’d think if not real dim they’d have stumbled upon drying racks or even more obviously storage pits in frozen ground. Dumb.

    You might think that they could have chased rabbits or whatever, but that is relatively unrewarding. It works a lot better if you can use nets or snares, but no evidence of such devices has been found among the Neanderthals.

    More dimness.

    • Ken S says:

      Maybe the Neanderthals were book smart but not street smart.

    • Sandgroper says:

      You can’t just live on rabbits and nothing else – you get rabbit starvation. Maybe not so dim. One thing HGs get desperate for is fat – domesticated animals are much higher in fat than wild animals. So a really low fat animal like a rabbit is unattractive.

  3. I have taken excessive risks in making a living and find myself short of calories.

  4. Sandgroper says:

    One of the things that fascinates me is that Neanderthal women had similar injuries to the men. Taking the girls big game hunting to make up the numbers and leaving the kids at home unattended, or taking them along, had to be a really high risk strategy – if that’s the way it happened. I have not seen any other explanation for the injury pattern.

    • gcochran9 says:

      The number of sufficiently-intact skeletons of female Neanderthals is very small. I’d say that we can’t be sure.

      • Sandgroper says:

        Yeah.

      • ironrailsironweights says:

        Or perhaps the Neanderthal women hunters were in their 40’s and 50’s, or whatever the equivalents to those years would be in the Neanderthal lifespan. Too old for childbearing, so any deaths would not affect the community’s reproduction rate, but still young enough to deal with the physical rigors of the hunt.

  5. j says:

    May be Siberian hunters are more proficient than Africans? although pigmies are reported to down elephants.

  6. j says:

    “In the Belgian Congo (1932) the Pygmies hunt the elephant in a manner tha t is very like the one
    described by E. Zwilling for the Cameroons. The differences are as follows:
    1. I n the Ituri Forest the Pygmies use short lances with a very large and broad iron blade
    (cu. 30×20 cm.) mounted on a short (cu. 75 cm.) and thick handle made of hardwood.
    This weapon is razor sharp, and normally it belongs to a Bantu chieftain for whom the
    Pygmies hunt under some sort of a contract.
    2. The hunter sneaks underneath the standing elephant and thrusts the spear upward into its
    soft belly with a lightning-quick movement. This is a choice place because the short-
    necked elephant can neither see under its belly nor reach there with its trunk. Sometimes they have time to give the handle a jerk thereby enlarging the wound.
    Before approaching his quarry the Pygmy hunter goes to one of the shallow pools,
    where the animals have their daily mudbath, and smears his entire body with mud, so
    he cannot be smelled out by his quarry. He is absolutely naked when hunting. ”
    JEAN J A N M

  7. ghazi-less says:

    “Third, the Babel effect: in the early days, paleoIndians likely had not yet split into different ethnic groups with different languages: with less fighting among the early Indians”

    Let me act like a reviewer: Seems this argument is your weakest. (1) It probably took several thousand years for the megafauna to go extinct (are there any estimates on the time it took?). (2) Languages can split into separate dialects in three generations, when populations grow rapidly, as was probably the case for the arriving Amerindians (may not be able to locate the reference for the rate at which new dialects emerge, but remember that it was based on the development of Bantu languages). (3) Groups of the same ethny can fight each other with great enthusiasm.

    Otherwise, agree.

    • gcochran9 says:

      In a given location, megafauna disappeared in less than a thousand years. Or at least became so rare that no more fossils (or other indicators) are found. People often vary their artifacts in ethnic-specific ways, so that you can easily tell their stuff from our stuff. Yet over a very large area, Clovis artifacts vary very little.

  8. baloocartoons says:

    Well, I guess you ARE what you eat. This is linked, with commentary and an appropriate illustration, here:
    http://ex-army.blogspot.com/2012/05/what-really-happened-to-neanderthals.html

    • Sandgroper says:

      Oh yeah? What if the berries are poisonous and you have a peanut allergy?

      • Hugh says:

        “Hey, swap a handful of nuts for my handful of berries? Last time I ate these I threw up.”
        The whole point of being an omnivore hunter-gatherer is to take advantage of lots of different food sources. Environments where there’s only one edible plant are unusual (and generally not places people live by choice anyway).

      • Sandgroper says:

        It was a joke.

  9. dearieme says:

    You can tell it was a joke because Neanderthals had no access to peanuts.

  10. call says:

    > Charles Mann has me wondering what the pygmies did before the Bantu arrived with iron. Of course I think Mann is wrong about the pre-Columbian Americas.

    Don’t all dwarved peoples have serious poison arrows? Don’t quote me.

  11. TWS says:

    Rabbits are not that hard to catch. If you can throw a rock you can get a rabbit. My grandfather taught me that. If you miss (as I occasionally did) watch which hole they go down. Get a stick, cut a cleft in the end and insert until you hit something soft. Twist the stick in hard until it tangles the fur and skin and you can drag out a rabbit. If you can throw as well as a good infielder you can get rabbits and ground birds. Not when they are running (at least I never hit one running).

    I have read somewhere that Neandertals had a harder time throwing than modern folks but I don’t know if that was supposition or just a faddish theory.

  12. Glossy says:

    There are paleolithic cave paintings in Europe that depict mammoths.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/souhs/6085299610/
    http://www.grottederouffignac.fr/default.asp

    It seems that for a long time northern Eurasians weren’t able to hunt mammoths to extinction, but that at some point they acquired that ability. Apparently this acquisition never happened in Africa or in South Asia. Saying that mammoths disappeared from Europe because the temperatures went up seems disingenuous – the mammoths might have persisted in northern Europe, they might have adapted to the warmer environment. That wasn’t the first interglacial for them in Eurasia, only the first one with competent human hunters around. Perhaps African hunters simply never became that competent.

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