Early hominids were eating meat long before they were even considered modern humans. The meat was probably raw because they did not yet have fire to cook it, and it may have been cleaned. However, at some point, millions of years ago, they began to crave animals.
“About 2.6 million years ago, we see an interest in meat from early hominids and the invention of flaked stone tools for cutting that meat,” says Henry BunnProfessor of African Paleoanthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
But while early humans may have craved meat, they didn’t know how to get it regularly. Only 2 to 1.8 million years ago Homo erectus it had a brain and body size large enough to hunt. Sites found in places like Olduvai gorge in Tanzania show that 2 million years ago Archaic humans were concentrated in one area with thousands of flaked stone tools and enough bones to show that hunting was probably common.
“Most of the animals found at this and other sites are mid-range bovids, a family of ungulates and horned animals that includes buffalo, antelope, wildebeest, sheep and goats,” says Bunn.
From Bovids to Wild Horses
When early humans first started hunting, they would eat bovids, which resemble impala or wildebeest in size and stature. The Olduvai Gorge site, dated to about 2 to 1.8 million years ago, shows the remains of up to 48 bovids that early humans likely butchered and ate. Bunn says sites from around that time show no evidence of fire. That would come just around the corner 800,000 years ago, but early humans probably gathered here during the day with their kills. It is also possible that they combined their meat with harvested plant foods, although it would be impossible to know for sure.
Another site dating back 300,000 years in Schöningen, northern Germany, shows that Homo Heidelbergensis probably slaughtered wild horses. The findings, documented in a 2015 study Journal of Human Evolution, show that prey was hunted with wooden spears, also found at the site. Many archaeological sites also include a mixture of deer or animals of the deer family, which includes elk, reindeer, and elk, depending on the part of the world where early humans hunted.
As archaic humans acquired larger brains and began to look more anatomically human, they began to hunt slightly larger animals, says Joseph Ferraro, director of the Institute of Archeology at Baylor University. “We have good evidence that they hunted larger animals than before,” he says.
It is also based on geography. By this time, humans had spread to Europe during an ice age where few vegetables were available. Regular access to meat would be crucial. Early humans who lived near water would also have hunted fish, crabs, seabirds, and shellfish.
Homo sapiens and Neanderthal tools
Until we get to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in Africa and Europe, the tools and weapons would have allowed them to “exploit a wider range of taxa,” Ferraro says. In addition, there is evidence, especially in North America and Siberia, of H. sapiens hunting megafauna. The earliest evidence in North America and Europe shows various locations that include woolly mammoths and other larger mammals.
“Late Pleistocene Paleoindians (about 9,000 years ago) and their spearheads are often found closely associated with the remains of woolly mammoths and large Pleistocene bison,” Bunn says. H. sapiens have regularly hunted these giant animals and there is even a highly heated debate that they contributed to megafauna disappearance.
Ever since the first humans tasted meat, they have honed their hunting skills to enjoy it regularly. At first the meat was smaller and raw, but over time bigger brains and better weapons meant they could hunt larger beasts and cook them over an open flame. After all, our ability to hunt these larger animals and gather around a fire to eat them is an important aspect of what it means to be human, experts say.