Early Hominid Activities at Olduvai

Overview

The earliest sites at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania are among the best documented and most important for studies of human evolution. This book investigates the behavior of hominids at Olduvai using data of stone tools and animal bones, as well as the results of work in taphonomy (how animals become fossils), the behavior of mammals, and a wide range of ecological theory and data. By illustrating the ways in which modern and prehistoric evidence is used in making interpretations, the author guides the reader through ...

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Overview

The earliest sites at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania are among the best documented and most important for studies of human evolution. This book investigates the behavior of hominids at Olduvai using data of stone tools and animal bones, as well as the results of work in taphonomy (how animals become fossils), the behavior of mammals, and a wide range of ecological theory and data. By illustrating the ways in which modern and prehistoric evidence is used in making interpretations, the author guides the reader through the geological, ecological, and archeological areas involved in the study of humans.

Based on his study of the Olduvai excavations, animal life, and stone tools, the author carefully examines conventional views and proposals about the early Olduvai sites. First, the evidence of site geology, tool cut marks, and other clues to the formation of the Olduvai sites are explored. On this basis, the large mammal communities in which early hominids lived are investigated, using methods which compare sites produced mainly by hominids with others made by carnivores. Questions about hominid hunting, scavenging, and the importance of eating meat are then scrutinized. The leading alternative positions on each issue are discussed, providing a basis for understanding some of the most contentious debates in paleo-anthropology today.

The dominant interpretive model for the artifact and bone accumulations at Olduvai and other Plio-Pleistocene sites has been that they represent "home bases," social foci similar to the campsites of hunter-gatherers. Based on paleo-ecological evidence and ecological models, the author critically analyzes the home base interpretation and proposes alternative views. A new view of the Olduvai sites—that they represent stone caches where hominids processed carcasses for food—is shown to have important implications for our understanding of hominid social behavior and evolution.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Based upon the author's dissertation, Potts builds a case for the 'stone cache' interpretation of several Bed I Olduvai Gorge sites . . . The book is well written and advanced readers will readily follow the author's logic as he proceeds to build his case . . . The book provides an excellent example of analysis and interpretation in human paleontology. Paleoecological, geological, and taphonomic data that have been used to make inferences about possible behaviors of plio-pleistocene hominids are provided, giving meaning to artifacts that are often merely listed or described. Recommended for upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty.” S. D. Stout, Choice “[T]he book under review… [represents an] important twist in the seemingly unending path toward understanding the significance of some of the earliest and best-documented traces of human behavior yet to be reported… This is a book whose arguments profit greatly from the author’s extensive, direct experience with the evidence at issues. It represents an important contribution to paleoanthropological studies and will prove useful in seminars on many topics, including site formation, taphonomy, and paleoecology… [T]he book constitutes a fine piece of scholarship and deserves careful scrutiny by anyone interested in the issues it broaches.” —John Bower, American Anthropologist “This book presents a wide-ranging look at some important early archaeological sites at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, in East Africa. Potts not only gives the reader a summary overview of the nature of the sites, their components, and their settings, but he offers a critical reassessment of what they might mean in terms of developing human behavior patterns in a critical period in our evolution between 1 and 2 million years ago… [T]his work… goes far above and beyond a description or itemization of the early archeological evidence from Olduvai, and provides innovative and critical analysis and interpretations of the data at hand.” —Kathy D. Schick, The Quarterly Review of Biology “Potts’s strategy, finding some firm ground on which to rebuild our knowledge of the hominid past, is a meticulous investigation of six of the various localities that make up the fossil and archaeological record of Bed 1 Olduvai. His method is to compare in detail the patterns of species representation, anatomical part, bone breakage and microscopic damage of the faunal assemblages with modern situations that have also been studies, in the context of specific artifact and stratigraphic associations… Despite its rather specific title and its technical virtuosity, this is a book rich with ideas relevant to the larger picture of human evolution. It demonstrates the importance of links between theory and empirical evidence and the development of suitable tests. Potts’s strategy of working from archaeological empiricism to behavioural ideas acts as a useful counterweight, and often a check, to the equally necessary development of the complex behavioural models of which are ancestors are worthy.” —Robert Foley, Man “Following the well-publicized and undeniably exciting discoveries of early hominid remains at Olduvai Gorge, in the Omo Valley, and at Koobi For a, Hadar, and Laetoli (to name only the best-known localities) during the period from 1959 to the middle and late 1970s, the attention of paleoanthropologists began to center on the more demanding task of interpreting the finds in behavioral terms. The importance of this endeavor, of course, is that it has to do with the very earliest stages of human social and cultural, as well as physical evolution, from ca. one to four million years ago… In this carefully reasoned analysis, examining the evidence used to support alternative explanations, Potts takes a somewhat intermediate stance… [O]ne thing Potts’s ideas illustrate is the possibility, if not probability, of diversified rates of evolution in hominid behavior, matching those in body and brain morphology that are already well attested (if not equally well understood)… In all probability, the emergence of humankind is not mirrored in that of chimpanzees or to be sought in the dim recesses of the contemporary sapient mind. Rather, it is studies of the kind represented by this book that will begin to provide a more complete understanding of this organizational change, through examining the entire context of the bones and stones that constitute the “fallout” of once-functioning behavioral systems.” —Creighton Gabel, The International Journal of African Historical Studies
Booknews
A paleoanthropological field study of Pleistocene artifacts and fossils at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. A new interpretation for the Olduvai sites--that they represent stone caches where hominids processed carcasses for food--is shown to have important implications for our understanding of hominid social behavior and evolution. Dr. Potts is with the Smithsonian. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780202363967
  • Publisher: Transaction Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/18/2010
  • Pages: 407
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Potts is professor of anthropology at the George Washington University and director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution. He has extensive field experience in Kenya and China. In addition to this book he is the author of Humanity’s Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability.

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