Re-Examining the Anthropological Records: Old Bones Shatter Hunter Myths

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Re-Examining the Anthropological Records: Old Bones Shatter Hunter Myths

by Robin Crompton

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 12, No. 6, November-December 1980, p. 5–8 & 34

Robin Crompton recently completed a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. He will be Assistant Professor in Anatomy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong next year. He has been working with the Sociobiology Study Group for several years.


Humanity has always been fascinated with its distant past, and has always needed some kind of myth to explain how we got here. Until the last few years, myths were all humanity had; not 20 years ago all the fossil evidence for human origins could have been packed fairly loosely into one coffin. But these past 20 years have seen a phenomenal increase in the amount of fossil data; now, instead of wishful reconstructions of ape-humans based upon a few broken bones, there is a complete skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, and footprints that this oldest ancestor made in volcanic ash some 3.5 million years ago. But the human desire for creation myths remains unsatisfied. 

The past 20 years have also seen a plethora of popular books attempting to reconstruct the social behaviour and psychology of early people on the basis of scant evidence. A quick skim through the pile of books and articles reveals a dominant central tendency: humanity is usually seen as burdened with an innate aggressiveness, competitiveness and male dominance. The innate nature of these ills makes hopes for a peaceful and egalitarian society distant, and efforts towards these ends prohibitively expensive if not futile. The books explain that the innate characteristics of humanity arise from our distant past, when men were hunters on the great plains of Africa and women gatherers and baby-minders. 

This idea permeates the popular media from the writings of Professor E.O. Wilson to Stanley Kubrick’s ape-men in “2001”, who get up off all fours to belabour each other with thigh-bone clubs. People were toolmakers, Kubrick suggests, and the first tools were weapons. 

This article will examine the origins of the myth of “man the hunter”, and its basis in fact or fiction. It will point to the dangers of speculation and the political and social conclusions drawn from stories of human malaise. 

A few quotes from Robert Ardrey, the dramatic author of such books as African Genesis; from the (aptly named) team of Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox; and from E.O. Wilson, will outline the myth of “man the hunter”. 

Significant evidence for the systematic use of weapons at a pre-human level of evolution existed in this room of bones … If the concept of the weapon had been part of our animal legacy, then our devotion to the weapon must be reckoned as a possible animal instinct, and politics and philosophy, education and psychiatry must alike grapple with the speculative consequences. 1

Females play only service roles of one kind or another to males … the business team is most often all male. Women, usually seen as disruptive to enterprise, are there only to serve in some way … in each case men will want to keep them from controlling the system, and women will be unlikely to make effective inroads into the centers of economic power. The roots of this dilemma are in our history. Women do not hunt. 2

…. even with equal education for men and women and equal access to all professions, men are likely to remain disproportionately represented in political life, business and science … We know in particular that the earliest true men …. hunted game. The animals that they captured included antelopes, elephants and other large mammals not exploited by the mostly vegetarian monkeys and apes. 3 

Cooperative hunting, says Wilson, was necessary to catch these large animals: 

What form did the new co-operation take? It might have entailed the joint and equal effort of all members of society — men, women and juveniles. But it could well have been based on some division of labour …. We must rely on data from the living hunter-gatherer societies (where) men are responsible for most or all of the hunting and women are responsible for most or all of the gathering. 4 

History of Homo sapiens development with time range on the y axis and the various lineages of "development"


Ardrey’s “room of bones”, which indicates that our earliest ancestors used the first tools as weapons, inspired many of the early works, such as Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression 5 (and also of course the apeman scene in 2001). Lorenz argued that as members of a vegetarian lineage of apes, humans lack the innate controls possessed by carnivores such as dogs, that allow an attacked animal to “switch off’ the aggression of a member of the same species by displaying stereotyped submissive signals such as exposing the throat. But as humans became plains hunters, not forest vegetarians, artificial, lethal weapons were developed to replace carnivore fangs, and, as technology and weaponry increase, humans have become uncontrolled, murderous “killer apes”. 

A “Room Full of Bones” 

Shortly after the Second World War, South African anatomist Robert Dart found fossils of Astralopithecus, a proto-human dating to around 2 million years B.P. The fossil lay in deep accumulations of bones from antelope and other animals in an ancient cave called Makapansgat in the Northern Transvaal of South Africa. 

Dart noticed that a disproportionate number of the bones were the lower jaw or the upper arm bone of antelope. Many of these bones had chipped ends, some were thrust into one another — a hyena skull had one of the antelope arm-bones thrust through its palate. Dart believed that all these pieces of evidence added up to one conclusion — that the antelope bones had been selected and prepared for use as tools by the Australopithecus. Not only that, but they had been used as weapons. The hyena skull had been delivered a death blow, stabbed by an Australopithecus hunter with an arm bone dagger. Yet more significantly—some of the Australopithecus fossils had received pre-fossilization breakages themselves. The clincher was found elsewhere in the Transvaal, at an ancient cave called Swartkrans, now a lime quarry. An Australopithecus skullcap was found with two paired, dented breaks — breaks which in depth and separation matched the form of the end of the antelope arm bones. Australopithecus clubbed each other to death. 

Dart’s theories of the bone tool culture and of the murders were not enthusiastically accepted by scientists. But Robert Ardrey had come to believe that human nature is fixed, not flexible, and is defined by innate and ancient behaviour patterns. The cold-shouldering of Dart’s ideas, said Ardrey, 6 is just another example of the blind liberalism of some scientists. He took up the cudgel in a series of dramatic and very successful books, beginning with African Genesis. When Lorenz added his voice, and Kubrick captured the image on film, the grisly lesson of Swartkrans and Makapan became an idea deeply imbedded in popular consciousness. Warfare seemed a natural part of human heritage. 

Evidence from Bone Deposits 

The “killer ape” idea is just a myth. Careful examination of Dart’s evidence shows that his interpretations of the Makapan and Swartkrans deposits employs more imagination than scientific method. Since the time of Dart’s discoveries, scientists have developed methods of analyzing such deposits that show how deposits form. The science, called taphonomy, reveals what happens to bones during their collection, if they are disturbed, and during burial and fossilization. Scientists can show conclusively whether such chippings and cuttings on bones were made by animals or by humans. 

Analyses of collections such as Makapan by South African anatomist C.K. Brain 7 and others 89show that all the various breaks, chippings, and jamming of one bone into another can be duplicated in other animal collections. The exact proportions of bones that Dart found can be duplicated by leaving carcasses to scavenging dogs. Eventually, detailed examination of individual chipped bones by scanning electron microscopy will provide conclusive evidence whether proto-humans had anything at all to do with the damage. The deposit itself, and most of Dart’s results, are similar to normal bone accumulations. Humans need not and should not be invoked. As for the Swartkrans skullcap, C.K. Brain 10 pointed out that the canine teeth of a leopard fit the dents better than any hypothetical bone club. Australopithecus at Swartkrans was prey, not predator or murderer. 


Both Ardrey 11 and Wilson 1213 believe that a transition to plains life was crucial in the origins of humanity. Says Wilson, humans were, and biologically still are:

…. the ecological analogues of lions, wolves and hyenas
…. the primate carnivores of the plains.14 
Humans must have been so, says Ardrey, because:
The teeth of Australopithecus africanus …. are small, the enamel is not very thick …. and the crowns, like our own, are totally inadequate for the endless grinding and munching of a vegetarian creature. 15 

This just is not so. The teeth of A. africanus are large, thick-enamelled, and eminently like the teeth of grinding vegetarians.16 In fact, the latest studies, 17 using scanning electron microscopy to examine minute scratch marks formed by the wear of different diets, show that Australopithecus and even early Homo seem to have eaten a diet dominated by tough, fibrous fruit. The meat content of the diet appears inconspicuously small. 

Archeology and the Hunter Myth 

The other source of evidence for carnivorous activities of early hominids is archeological findings. Wilson draws his evidence from archeological studies of the few sites in East Africa where there are signs of butchery of animals. A couple of sites, at Olduvai and Koobi Fora, dating from around 2 to 1.5 million years B.P. do, on first examination, appear to show signs of butchery of large animals, and of breaking of bones to get marrow. However, studies of breakage patterns, in individual bones are incomplete. Wilson does not mention this in his books, and he totally ignores the fact that the author of the article he cites notes that archeologists have no evidence of early hominid hunting. 

Cooperative hunting of large game is at the core of the Wilson/Tiger and Fox model of the origins of the sexual division of labor. Archeologists simply do not know whether early Homo and Australopithecus hunted large animals or scavenged. They do have inconclusive evidence that some butchery occurred, but they have no strong evidence of any systematic hunting until much later (500,000 B.P. at Torralba-Ambrona in Spain where elephants were systematically mired and butchered in a narrow mountain pass). Wear pattern analysis of teeth indicates that meat was not a major food item until this late date. 

Wilson’s model of the development of male dominance as a genetic adaptation to hunting life represents an unacceptable distortion of the available data, or at best, pure speculation. Wilson claims it is based on what scientists “know” — early humans were plains carnivores, big game hunters. This is not known, and is, based on present evidence, unlikely. 

Was There Hunting on the Plains? 

What about the shift to plains life so important to Wilson’s model? Unfortunately, there is no evidence of this. Further, taphonomy has shown that archeologists are most likely to find fossils and ancient campsites preserved in slow-moving streams or lakeshore environments, and least likely to find sites in the forest. Burial and preservation possibilities are low in the forest, so it is not surprising that there are no sites in ancient forest environments. There are no sites in the plains either. Sites are near lakeshores and streams and in floodplains, both at Koobi and Olduvai. It is possible that because these areas are diverse ecological zones they were optimal habitat for the early hominids. The “plains” hypothesis is pure speculation. 

The co-operative hunting hypothesis does not follow from available data. It runs contrary to fact in some instances, and it is unlikely that the small early hominids made a living chasing after elephants and other large plains game armed with poorly made stone tools. Archeologists do not have any evidence that indicates that early hominids had fired hardened wooden spears: these turn up at around 500,000 years B.P. Even if earlier hominids had them, it is difficult to imagine early Homo or Australopithecus chasing elephants with such tools with any success: at Torralba the larger, more advanced Homo erectus merely dispatched mired elephants. Modern elephant-hunting pygmies use long, metal-tipped (sometimes poisoned) spears and traps. 

Early Sexual Division of Labor: Another Myth 

In Wilson’s “hunting hypothesis”, co-operation in the hunt leads to the sexual division of labor. Wilson uses two pieces of evidence in putting forward his view that human “hunting” forbearers were male-dominated — men hunted, and women, peripheral to evolution, did what they were told. 

Wilson uses difference in sports skills between modern men and women athletes to support his ideas. He notes that men run faster (but not further), throw better and shoot arrows long distances better. These are all relevant to hunting, says Wilson, so men hunted. Bows do not turn up in the archeological record until the Upper Paleolithic, some 20,000, not 2 million years ago. Where bows are used in modern hunter-gatherer societies they are universally a short range weapon, so archery skills are irrelevant. (Incidentally, women are better at short-range precision shooting.) In modern hunting societies, fishing, trapping and poisoning are at least as important (probably more important) methods of catching animals than the chase.1819When a chase does occur, the slow running-down of wounded or arrow-poisoned animals over long distances is important, and the differences between male and female endurance runners are small. The hunter’s skills are tracking, snaring and poisoning, and Wilson does not indicate any genetic superiority of men over women in these skills. Moreover, it is absurd to make extrapolations from modern male and female athletes of species Homo sapiens to individuals of genus Australopithecus or species Homo habilis 1.5-3.5 million years ago.

Wilson’s other piece of evidence about sex-roles in the Paleolithic concerns what modern hunter-gatherers do. The major example in both of Wilson’s books is the !Kung San of the Kalahari desert in Botswana. These are the remnants of a people that once lived all over Southern Africa until they were nearly exterminated by the Bantu expansion from the north and by European settlement from the south. The only !Kung San left today are those who lived in a desert too inhospitable to be of interest to anyone else. Wilson examines them because they are, “primitive”: Who is to say who is primitive? Are Westerners not “primitive” — they have the same marriage system as the Eskimo — another hunting people? Or are the aboriginal peoples of Australia “primitive” — their technology is simpler than that of the !Kung, but their marriage system is the most complex known? 

It is not possible to go back into the Stone Age by taking a jet to Botswana. The !Kung San have a long history and they are not in an hermetically sealed time capsule from the dawn of humanity. They use metal arrowheads and not stone tools, and they wear khaki shorts. Furthermore, would our Stone Age ancestors, living in an empty world, choose to live in a desert? 

It is legitimate to make precise and careful analogies from fact to fact using a living people to compare with others. It is not legitimate to make judgements about the social behaviour and psychology of proto-humans living 1.5-3.5 million years ago, (with an at present unknown diet and economy), on the basis of what a remnant population of modern people does when hunting and gathering in a desert. 


The myths of “man the hunter” and “the killer ape” are vital elements in the evolutionary stories and speculations that biological determinists use to support their theories about the genetic boundaries of human nature. But like the “genetic boundaries” themselves, they are entirely speculative, and often represent major distortions or contradictions of the facts. Why do these myths not only survive but continually re-appear, each time under a slightly different guise, (but each time fervently denying their connection with the earlier fallacious determinisms)? 

In part, these stories claim that what exists now should be; they are convenient to segments of society that wish to cut back on “Headstart” and other expensive programs of social progress. Affirmative action becomes less attractive if one believes that women were gatherers rather than hunters. Furthermore, even reputable scientists begin their work with pre-conceptions of what the results should be: in this case the pre-conception is that humans are aggressive and males are dominant. 

The appealing and insidious nature of myths like “the killer ape” are dangerous. They become part of the human consciousness, the common set of pre-conceptions and biases that colour thinking, and linger on against any number of devastating scientific criticisms. Responsible scientists, armed with these preconceptions and a natural desire to make their work more interesting and popular, feed the flames of misconception by making illegitimate and unwarranted speculations when publically announcing their data. The media picks up on these myths as the results of “science.” For instance, early this year the discovery of a large sample of fossils of a primitive ape, Aegyptopithecus was announced in several papers and magazines. Some of the individuals that were found, possibly males, had longer canines. The reports mentioned that this evidence lead scientists to conclude that these animals were members of a social group who were “more aggressive, courageous, inventive and intelligent than any other groups or species that lived in monogamous and pair bonded societies.” 20 We might be inclined to think that biologists know what they are talking about, but the jump-in logic between canine length and the establishment of a high degree of individual courage in apes 30 million years ago is absurd, and unjustified. 

Politics and Myths About the Past 

Political from inception, concepts of “man the hunter” and “the killer ape” are no less political in conclusion and application. They are also dishonest, speculative and often untrue. But even if “man” (never “woman”) were a hunting animal during the dawning years of our lineage, even if this hunting lifestyle had imposed genetic pressures on us, knowledge of the genetic components of a behaviour pattern and its adaptive origins can tell us nothing of how such genetic characteristics might respond to a change in environment; how they might be changed or even eradicated as behaviours.
Careful, scientific study of human origins, not speculation, may tell us much about where we have come from, and how we got here. It has little to tell us of where we may go from here.

>> Back to Vol. 12, No. 6 <<



  1. Ardrey, R. African Genesis (New York, N.Y.: Dell, 1961).
  2. Tiger, L. and R. Fox, The Imperial Animal (New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971).
  3. Wilson, E.O. On Human Nature (New York, N.Y.: Bantam, 1979).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Lorenz, K. On Aggression (New York, N.Y.: Bantam, 1977).
  6. Ardrey, R. African Genesis.
  7. Brian, C.K. “Some Principles in the Interpretations of Bone Accumulations Associated with Man,” in Isaac, G. and E.R. McCowan, Human Origins (Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin, 1976).
  8. Behrensmeyer, A.K. and A.P. Hill, eds. Fossils in the Making (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980).
  9. Brian, C.K. “New Frontiers at the Swartkrans Australopithecine Site,” Nature, Vol. 225, No. 112, 0. 19.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ardrey, R. African Genesis.
  12. Wilson, E.O. On Human Nature.
  13. Wilson, E.O. Sociobiology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ardrey, R. African Genesis.
  16. Jolly, C.J. “The Seed Eaters,” Man, Vol. 5, No. I, 1970, pp. 6- 26.
  17. Rensberger, B. “Teeth Show Fruit Was Staple,” New York Times Science Section, May 15, 1979.
  18. Forde, C. D. “Foraging, Hunting and Fishing,” in Singer C. ed. History of Technology (Oxford, England: Oxford, 1954).
  19. Webster, B. “Primate is Called Ancestor of Man and Apes,” New York Times, Feb. 7, 1980.
  20. Reference not included in original article