The First Team

I’ve been reading Thin on the Ground, a book by Stephen Churchill. One of his ideas is based on the fact some predator species are dominant over others and get the lion’s share (cough, cough) of the kills. Lions frequently steal carcasses from hyenas, while everyone steals from cheetahs and wild dogs, etc.

There is good evidence ( stable isotope data) that Neanderthals were highly carnivorous, and that they used thrusting spears, which are effective but not as generally useful as atlatls – standoff weapons. Churchill suspects that with their thrusting spears tech, Neanderthals were _not_ the top dogs of the predator guild, and that they may have been dominated by cave lions and scimitar cats, while having approximately equal status with hyenas. In practice, this would mean that Neanderthals often lost kills to high-ranked carnivores such as cave lions. The majority of calories from animal kills would go to higher-ranked carnivores ( not to Neanderthals) . Neanderthal population size would be limited, and some environments ( like open plains, where kills are highly visible) might be effectively closed to them.

Neanderthals don’t seem to take much advantage of the Atlantic salmon runs – maybe da Bears didn’t let them.

We think of Man as #1, and generally that’s the case nowadays, but it wasn’t always true.

So imagine that the Predecessors, the population that left those footprints at White Sands, didn’t have the atlatl. They may have arrived as fishermen, and may have been gradually re-inventing and improving their hunting techniques. They had to compete with short-faced bears, sabertooth tigers, the American lion, dire wolves, the American cheetah, grizzly bears, and wolves. Their diet was not as limited as that of the Neanderthals – North America was warming and plant foods were available – but they may have been dominated by some of the larger predators. if so, their cut of the herbivores may have been limited, they may have been limited to certain kinds of terrain, etc. They may have been thin on the ground, like Neanderthals.

Third example: we know that modern humans arrived even earlier in Australia/New Guinea ( then joined as Sahul), and those humans _were_ ecologically dominant, even though they did _not have atlatls ( until fairly recently), as far as we know. They became common enough to leave noticeable numbers of artifacts and skeletons, and they drove most of the Australian megafauna to extinction.

Why would human domination be easy in Australia and hard for Predecessors in the Americas?

I would guess because the dominant predators of Sahul were reptiles and marsupials.

They’re dumb.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

54 Responses to The First Team

  1. engleberg says:

    Working a trap line gets more food that any other form of hunting, and thrusting spears would be more practical to finish a pinned, wounded (Big Mammal) than a fair fight. Maybe the Predecessors worked fish traps at the tide line.

    -129$ for a freaking e-book? Bah.

  2. P says:

    What sort of weapon technology did the Khoisan / similar people reach?

  3. Cat Rationalist says:

    Sorry if it’s a dumb question, how is that marsupials are about as dumb as reptiles?
    I heard explanation that their brain needs to be mature from very early age, but still can’t accept this.

  4. Coagulopath says:

    What evolutionary scenarios favor venomous creatures?

    Sahul seems to have a fair few: the taipan, funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, and so forth. Are there any particular forces that would have given rise to this?

    • John Massey says:

      Met any black mambas lately? I didn’t find out until recently that they are related to cobras, and behave the same way when cornered.

      Tangentially, the first guy who succeeded in capturing an inland taipan alive got bitten in the process and died the next day. That would take the shine off his achievement a bit.

  5. John Massey says:

    Not only dumb, not that many different predators suited to different types of terrain. Thylacoleo carnifex looks like it was an ambush predator, probably arboreal/dropping onto large prey. Thylacines were not threatening to humans. Salt water crocodiles still are, but if you stay far enough away from the salt water you’ll be fine – they only eat English or German tourists anyway, which is OK; they wash them first. Fresh water crocodiles are not threatening. There were megalania, but they can’t have been that fast moving – Komodo Dragons are slow, and they’re a lot smaller; they need to sneak up on you to get you, and in hunter-gatherer camps there is always someone awake.I guess a megalania could push hunters off a kill, but ramming some hardwood spears into them or chasing them with firesticks could have been discouraging Plus it seems like there were never that many of them – so maybe the big lizards got an occasional win, but it wouldn’t have been a frequent event. There was quinkana, a terrestrial or semi-terrestrial crocodile that could have been a problem, but all fossils found have been close to water sources, so maybe they were avoidable too.

    So watch out for the big salty crocs while fishing in the sea or estuaries, burn off the thick bush to get rid of the big nasties, or keep to open plains – no real risks or competition.

    The Americas during the Pleistocene must have been terrifying. And I would guess that the forests didn’t burn as easily as they did in Oz. If eucalypts get hot enough, just wind-blown sparks will cause them to explode into flames. Aboriginal people have been regularly setting fire to tracts of bushland for, like, forever.

    • Stefan says:

      Salt water crocodiles are dumb and very predictable. Most people living next to them for a long time such as Anindilyakwa knew it. Rob Bredl made lots of videos showing how easy they are to be tricked. They react on splash and you can easily make them come out of the water and spear them.

      • John Massey says:

        OK. In fairness, I did note that the crocs prefer to chomp on tourists, possibly splashy ones.

        There was that time some blokes in WA went to sea fishing in a tinny, and a big croc climbed into the boat with them. The only thing they could do was get out of the boat, which was reportedly a somewhat embarrassing situation.

    • reziac says:

      To the contrary, freshwater crocs are exceedingly dangerous. They’re why no land creature in its right mind wades into waterholes in sub-Saharan Africa. You can usually see the hippos; you won’t see the croc til it’s too late.

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    In general, Australian fauna have lost out to Eurasian fauna, kind of the way Australian manufacturing tends to be uncompetitive vs. the rest of the world.

    On the other hand, Australian animals are really good at poisoning you. Is there an understood reason poisonous animals tend to be more common in hot and/or dry places (e.g., not Ireland)?

    • John Massey says:

      Which explains why some species of kangaroo are in plague proportions. They must be those Eurasian kangaroos.

      • Pincher Martin says:

        Do you not understand the words “In general”? Or do you dispute his uncontroversial characterization that Australian fauna have generally lost out to Eurasian fauna when competing species from the latter category were introduced to the Australian continent?

        • John Massey says:

          Gone extinct due to competition, rather than predation, over-hunting or loss of habitat?

          It is thought the thylacine might have gone extinct on the Australian mainland due to competition after introduction of the dingo, but it is just a theory. Dingoes have a habit of killing other predators like feral domesticated cats and foxes, although they certainly have not succeeded in killing them all. But it is possible they just killed all of the thylacines.

          What other Australian native species have gone extinct due to competition? Come on, genius, give us a list.

          • Gone extinct due to competition, rather than predation, over-hunting or loss of habitat?

            You are the first one in this thread to use the word “extinct.” Both Sailer and I used the word “lost out.” Losing out can mean extinction, but it can also mean a reduction of range in the wild or in numbers without extinction.

            Or are you making up this discussion as you go? Just introducing words willy-nilly as they occur to you?

            And what does it matter for the purpose of countering your dyspeptic commentary here how Eurasia’s fauna outcompete the native animals in Australia so long as they do?

            It is thought the thylacine might have gone extinct on the Australian mainland due to competition after introduction of the dingo, but it is just a theory.

            Just a theory? It’s just a theory that the megafauna were wiped out by mankind, but the theory has much to support it.

            Certainly Tim Flannery didn’t think it controversial that Eurasia’s introduced wild animals had a major devastating impact on Australia’s fauna, but perhaps you know more than Flannery about the state of Australia’s fauna.

            Dingoes have a habit of killing other predators like feral domesticated cats and foxes, although they certainly have not succeeded in killing them all.

            But domestic cats and foxes are also invasive animals in Australia and so they are accustomed to competing in the same environment with large canines – or didn’t you know that already?

            As for how invasive species outcompete Australia’s local fauna, check out the cane toad’s effect on the northern quoll our how the red fox is responsible for the extinction of several native species, including the Desert rat-kangaroo, as well as declines in many other Australian animal populations or how feral cats have also been tied to the reduction and even extinction of several Australian animals.

            But I’m sure you knew that already, right asshole?

            What other Australian native species have gone extinct due to competition? Come on, genius, give us a list.

            No, I’ll just make you sweat for now.

            • John Massey says:

              Yes, I am taking ‘lost out’ to mean extinction or at the very least threatened with extinction. And I am drawing a distinction between competition and predation, over-hunting, habitat loss or, in the case of cane toads, poisoning. I am including bush burning in hunting, at least until white settlers arrived, when it gets muddled. I am taking dingoes as native because they have been there long enough for a new ecological equilibrium to have been established, but that’s somewhat controversial in Australia.

              You were evidently in such a hurry to gratuitously abuse me and show how smart you are that you missed all of that. You have given examples of extinction due to predation, not competition. Feral cats and foxes do badly in ranges where dingoes are frequent, but that is because the dingoes kill them, not through competition. Well, I suppose that is competition of a sort – the dingoes probably don’t kill them to eat them, although maybe they do.

              Flannery is a nut case who wants to introduce Komodo Dragons to Australia as a way to ‘rewild’ with some extinct Pleistocene megafauna, so no, I don’t take his word for anything.

              And I have nothing more to say to you because you clearly can’t control your abusive nature.

              • Pincher Martin says:

                Yes, I am taking ‘lost out’ to mean extinction or at the very least threatened with extinction.

                Well, it’s not. Here’s an example from Wikipedia:

                The spread of the red fox population [in Australia] corresponds with declines in the distribution of several medium-sized ground-dwelling mammals, including brush-tailed bettongs, burrowing bettongs, rufous bettongs, bilbies, numbats, bridled nailtail wallabies and quokkas. Most of these species now only live in limited areas (such as islands) where red foxes are absent or rare.

                Lost out. Not extinct. Get it now?

                You were evidently in such a hurry to gratuitously abuse me and show how smart you are that you missed all of that.

                You were the one who began the snark when you first took Sailer to task for his very direct and uncontroversial observation and then later challenged me for backing him up by calling me “genius.”

                Don’t whine now that the fire is being returned. If you can’t take it, I suggest you elevate your tone and stop acting as if you have some superior sense of how the world works. You’re not as smart as you think you are, “genius.”

                Flannery is a nut case who wants to introduce Komodo Dragons to Australia as a way to ‘rewild’ with some extinct Pleistocene megafauna, so no, I don’t take his word for anything.

                I see your “genius” now includes contact-free psychological observations of famous scholars by linking them to particular policies that have nothing to do with the question at hand.

                I will turn into a question a previous line I fed to you: Do you know more about Australia’s fauna than Tim Flannery? Have you read more about the ecological impact of invasive species on Australia? Do you know more about those native animals’ recent history since the introduction of various Eurasian animals?

                A yes or no response will do. Segueing to, say, Flannery’s previous support of the idea of harvesting a few whales for their meat for a more balanced ecology is not an appropriate response. Like your comment on Flannery’s views on Komodo Dragons, it will be considered an attempt by you to change the topic.

                And I have nothing more to say to you because you clearly can’t control your abusive nature.

                You first, mate. Or should I say, “you first, genius”?

      • Nod says:

        Nah, we stopped the Eurasian kangaroo plagues with Myxo and Calici.

    • Perhaps because poisoning something is much lower effort than physically subduing it. In the Northern lands of plenty maybe the ‘tooth and claw’ approach works, but much of Australia has been a land of poor soils and inconsistent rainfall for a long time.

    • dearieme says:

      The Irish case is easy. (i) The ice kills off any snakes. (ii) The land bridge to Britain floods before snakes (and various other creatures) can repopulate Ireland after the ice has retreated.

      But the only venomous snake in Britain is the adder so, more generally, do venomous creatures tend to be cold-bloodied? If so would cooler climates be unattractive?

    • teageegeepea says:

      Australia is smaller and supports smaller populations. The Old World had larger populations, and thus more competition & selection. It also seems like the animals of the Americas tended to get outcompeted by invasive species from the Old World (which include monkeys even prior to the Columbian exchange), and within the Americas the ones from the North tended to outcompete ones from the South once the two continents got connected.

    • pyrrhus says:

      Sure..A hot climate favors ambush predators with poison that immobilizes the prey rather than chase predators…,.

    • Harold says:

      Australia has native rodents, which snakes prey on, and which need to be subdued quickly so they don’t injure the snake. Small mammals with venom resistance are a threat to snakes. Hedgehogs, for example, which eat snakes.

      Maybe Australia had wily, non-marsupial, rodents, but not-so-wily marsupial predators—rats but not cats—so venomous snakes were more successful?

    • Fat Brad says:

      Ignorantly wrong

      The dominant non carnivorous species in the Australian wilderness remain native species

      Yes Australian carnivores are and were useless but herbivores like kangaroos and possums outcompete the introduced alternatives in Australia and also proliferate overseas when introduced in many places outside Australia.

    • et.cetera says:

      ” Is there an understood reason poisonous animals tend to be more common in hot and/or dry places (e.g., not Ireland)?”

      I’m not sure that they are. There are more species in warmer climates in general. Doesn’t look like there’s anything sui generis here about venomous animals.

    • says:

      Mostly wrong

      Australian carnivores are terrible but the dominant wild herbivores are native animals (kangaroos, possums etc). These animals also do well when introduced overseas in the right climate.

  7. pyrrhus says:

    But maybe grizzly bears, lions etc. were too successful, which kept their brains from evolving as rapidly as homo sapiens, who lacked their physical advantages…

  8. TWS says:

    Venom is the go-to move of a critter that cannot swiftly catch its prey. If you absolutely positively need your food to stop where they are, your venom can be quite effective. The part about the neanderthal is interesting but speculation. Hucking big heavy rocks or even standing your ground and screaming in a group will discourage predators. How much of that is instinct because messing with groups of humans becomes ingrained in the and survivors and how much is simply caution of the noisy and chaotic would be an interesting exercise to figure out.

    Neanderthal appears to have the brains for trapping/trapping style hunting. A buffalo pound is simply a trap with humans as an integral part. Maybe there weren’t enough neanderthal to make it work?

    That still leaves snares, fish traps, dead falls pit traps etc. Maybe the neanderthal weren’t smart enough to figure out the set a trap and come back strategy. Maybe the barefoot Americans were poor hunters. We can measure. Their prowess by the extinction of certain species and the spread of others. If tortoises go extinct except in marginal environments while rabbits or other fast critters expand we can figure the humans were at least as successful as marginal hunters. If big critters pushed by fire go extinct you can guess humans can be effective hunters

  9. Genghis Khan was very good at picking off stuff from other predators, too, so it’s a strategy that generalises to culture a bit. Maybe more than a bit, looking at world history.

  10. ohwilleke says:

    Early Australians used intentionally set wildfires as one of their primary weapons early on.

  11. Deucalion says:

    It’s hard to believe that Neanderthals could not throw rocks effectively, chimps can throw rocks although not very well so surely the Neanderthals could. 30 or 40 Neanderthals hurling a dozen rocks and stones each would drive off any Lion or Bear.
    On the other hand it’s very very hard to see how you could bring down a buffalo or an elk with just a thrusting spear, let alone a mammoth, rhino or hippo.
    It’s much more likely that the Neanderthals had to wait for lions and bears to bring down the large prey then chase them off using a volley of stones, flaming torches and much hullabalooing.
    The Masai can do this nowadays if YouTube is to be believed.
    Of course such kills would be infrequent and unpredictable so the population number of the Neanderthals would remain very low, a band of 40 individuals would need a thousand square miles to support themselves.

    • Difference Maker says:

      Neanderthals were immensely robust and suffered much the same injuries as rodeo riders. It seems they were not averse to close combat

    • TWS says:

      A local tribe hunted elk by digging pits and hiding in the pits while others drove the elk towards the pit. They would dig the pits near the edge of the forest.

      They say it was successful but they were very successful whalers, sealers, and fishers. I don’t know why they bothered much with elk and deer when the sea food was usually easier to get and came in bigger packages. They weren’t really ‘bow and arrow’ people more spear and club types even in warfare

  12. Scott HArrington says:

    From Smithsonian Magazine: Neanderthals didn’t ride bucking broncos (as far as we know), but the Stone Age hominids did seem to have one thing in common with rodeo riders: injuries. In 1995, paleoanthropologists Thomas Berger and Erik Trinkaus, now at Washington University in St. Louis, noted that Neanderthals had a disproportionate number of injuries to their heads and necks. The same is true among modern rodeo riders. Just as these cowboys get too close for comfort to angry horses and bulls, Neanderthals’ hunting style—sneaking up on prey and jabbing them with heavy spears—brought their upper bodies within striking distance of large, hoofed animals. – I briefly knew one man kicked to death by a horse (hoof to chest), trained with one woman whose bad mood horse cracked her ribs and ankle with a nudge to the stall; both domesticated animals. 1. The N man couldn’t throw or didn’t know how. 2. Killing a wild animal up very close is EXTREMELY difficult if it is large, doesn’t want to be eaten, or is toxic in some way. 4. N man, while incredibly strong with massive muscles and skeletal structure probably looked nothing like the current projections. Check out here – – Over-large eyes for night vision, located much farther up on the skull, modern artists do a poor job expecting them to look human-like. N man terrorized and ate developing humans. We wiped them out with projectiles.

    • Henry Scrope says:

      Thanks for the link,interesting.

    • NumberOneCustomer says:

      I don’t know jack sh-t about the topic (or whether Smithsonian Magazine is generally reliable) AND i only glanced at that article, but the reconstruction images are fascinating

      • NumberOneCustomer says:

        Ah, the link is not to a Smithsonian article. Still …

        • kai says:

          It’s entertaining, and indeed most current reconstructions may be too anthropomorphic…Difficult to tell, Neanderthals apparently did some painting, but not the kind of self-portrait that could help. I suspect that genomic progress will help a lot, it seems that the genotype=>phenotype reconstruction make progress, even across barrier species, so hairiness for example may become answerable in the not distant future…Maybe much more, there is something like that for denisovan appearance that emerged recently. How accurate it is, no idea at all….
          However, the proposed Morlock-like appearance, while it would sort of please H.G. Wells, is much much less believable that the most anthropomorphic reconstruction. Slit-pupils for example, Is there any primate with slit pupils? Large eyes rarely have slit pupils anyway, Tigers don’t for example….Already a bad start…
          And It basically looks like a male gorilla with very bad mood, and longer legs.
          But looking at male gorilla, neanderthal and sapiens skeleton side by side show super clearly that neanderthal will be much more sapiens-like than gorilla-like.
          Even a female gorilla skeleton, which looks a little bit closer to human ones, is more different than neanderthals. And female gorilla are not even as extreme as the reconstruction in the upper body.
          So yeah, entertaining but not believable imho. However, they would make better “eaters of the dead” than what was in The 13th Warrior…

          • John Massey says:

            Better than the pre-conversion Fijians? One Fijian guy has been credited with eating more than 800 people. He kept score with a pile of rocks. You don’t need scary looking and ridiculously inaccurate ‘reconstructions’ of Neanderthals – just old photos of Fijian men will do.

  13. dave chamberlin says:

    Good book referral, thank you. Mungo man, a 42,000 year old modern found in Australia had “atlatl elbow.” Much like tennis elbow it comes from years of stress put on a particular joint. So early modern man indeed had the means of making range weapons that presumably the Neanderthals did not. If a Neanderthal tries to chase a lion off a kill with a thrusting spear, it’s suicidal. If a modern hits a feasting lion with a projectile weapon from a safe distance, and is part of a hunting party, it sounds like a great hunting tactic.

  14. Scott Harrington says:

    Primate with large eye sockets for night vision. similar to large eye sockets of N man.

    Smithsonian Magazine link. Notice the eyes are not in the right place in the mockups.

    Link to paper on rodeo injuries in N man.
    “the similarity to the Rodeo lesion distribution suggests frequent close encounters with large ungulates unkindly disposed to the humans involved.”

    N man throws like a girl (I have seen women softballers that could kill with the speed and power of their pitch.),as%20their%20%22throwing%20arm%22.&text=The%20study%20concludes%2C%20that%20while,found%20in%20early%20modern%20man.

    “Neanderthal’s short squat body, massive limbs and lack of backward displacement at the shoulder joint may have hampered their ability to incorporate projectile weaponry.”

  15. dave chamberlin says:

    A day late and a dollar short in this comment but I have to vent. I just reread David Reich’s brilliant book “Who we are and how we got here.” and chapter !! on the Genomics of Race and Identity pissed me off. Aptly subtitled Fear of Biological Difference the chapter goes on to positively sneer at anyone who has the audacity to cross the line on what one can say and not say regarding intelligence and recent human evolution.

    I get it. I get why a man employed by Harvard needs to play by the rules. I understand and agree with David Reich’s vehement reaction to ugly racism. But when is the game of ignoring the very strong possibility that intermixing with Neanderthals caused huge advantages for that hybrid population going to end? Never? Next century? I dunno. Within five thousand years of our mixing with Neanderthals modern man, before that we were their equals, we gained super powers. we rolled through the rest of the world crushing all opposition so fast that we barely had time to make the beast with two backs.

    At one time we were 6% Neanderthal but that percentage has decreased for several reasons. With all those genes influencing brain development and brain function working separately for hundreds of thousands of years in two separate populations and then finally intermixing and that resulting population taking over the entire world one would think that a connection would be made. But nope, no can do, the truth can wait.

    I should add this isn’t proven. It is an incredibly complex subject, multiple factors have to be involved besides this hybridization event. If Sub Saharan Africans were the same 1.5 to 2.0% Neanderthal that the rest of the world is Reich and others would have a completely different view of the importance of that hybridization event. The truth doesn’t work that way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s