Rough and Tumble: Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution

Rough and Tumble: Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution

by Travis Pickering

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Travis Rayne Pickering argues that the advent of ambush hunting approximately two million years ago marked a milestone in human evolution, one that established the social dynamic that allowed our ancestors to expand their range and diet. He challenges the traditional link between aggression and human predation, however, claiming that while aggressive attack is a perfectly efficient way for our chimpanzee cousins to kill prey, it was a hopeless tactic for early human hunters, who—in comparison to their large, potentially dangerous prey—were small, weak, and slow-footed. Technology that evolved from wooden spears to stone-tipped spears and ultimately to the bow and arrow increased the distance between predator and prey and facilitated an emotional detachment that allowed hunters to stalk and kill large game. Based on studies of humans and of other primates, as well as on fossil and archaeological evidence, Rough and Tumble offers a new perspective on human evolution by decoupling ideas of aggression and predation to build a more realistic understanding of what it is to be human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520274006
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/10/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Travis Rayne Pickering is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Honorary Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). He directs the multidisciplinary Swartkrans Paleoanthropological Research Project and is a co-director of the Olduvai Paleoanthropology and Paleoecology Project. He is the co-founder and coeditor of the Journal of Taphonomy and the coeditor of the book Breathing Life into Fossils.

Read an Excerpt

Rough and Tumble

Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution

By Travis Rayne Pickering


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-27400-6


A Man among Apes

Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world.

—Miguel de Cervantes, based on the ancient Greek aphorism, "Know thyself"

I have a remarkable friend named Bob Brain. In his early eighties, Bob now finds himself among the last of the true natural historians. Not much worth knowing about the complex ecological interplay of organism and environment escapes his deliberation. Lately, Bob's mind is on the origins of animal life. The particulars of his work on that topic are beyond the bounds of this book, but an overview is relevant. Although Bob's research is rooted in theory, it's driven by the recovery of fossils; in any historical science, data generated in the course of well-conceived fieldwork are the definitive sources of testable hypotheses. And, Bob's observations are defying conventional wisdom about the first appearance of the animals. He and his colleagues are documenting spongelike organisms fossilized in Namibian limestones. These fossils are in excess of 750 million years old, significantly more ancient than customary estimates of when the first animals emerged from their simpler eukaryotic ancestors. These results do not, however, inspire in Bob the same kind of rapture that has motivated other heretic intellectuals in their own battles with establishment "big boys." Instead, Bob's probing of the beginnings of multicellularity only confirm his long-held convictions that humankind in this new century stands at the brink of its own destruction, and that we tilt toward that abyss as the ultimate consequence of more than half a billion years of heterotrophy. Prior to the animals, all organisms were autotrophic, using inorganic carbon dioxide to fulfill their energetic requirements. The evolution of heterotrophy changed all that, and those organisms that entered this intensely competitive system began to ingest other life forms in order to satisfy their carbon needs. The food web was spun, and consumerism, in the basest sense of that term, was born. One evening, overlooking a hard southern African sunset, Bob contemplated this natural state of affairs and deadpanned to me that "once these bastards evolved there was no turning back. It's quite disgusting, really."

It is from this basic biological perspective, and with an appreciation of the great depth of the Earth's geological history, that an uncharitable reader could dismiss the contents of this book. Is predation not now, more than 700 million years after its emergence, rendered just as mundane as it is profound? Animals kill, animals eat. Humans are animals, so they kill and eat. So what? But, consider just how unique an activity is human hunting. It's true that some nonhuman animals use tools to hunt, others target prey larger than an individual hunter, and a few even share food—but none, other than the human animal, possesses these traits as a behavioral complex used in combination to both satisfy their caloric and nutritional requirements and to build social cohesion. Many researchers argue that this type of multifaceted, socially complex hunting—still employed today by the last of the traditional human foragers—is the very socioecological basis of our humanness. If so, then human predation is undoubtedly a topic worthy of serious scholarship. Indeed, it has already generated an enormous body of research during the 150-plus years since the study of human evolution was first codified as paleoanthropology, a true, empirically based scientific endeavor. This book draws on that research, situating notions of human predation within a generalized paleoanthropological framework.

In addition to well-reasoned hypotheses of human evolution, part of that framework is the sociohistorical milieu in which those hypotheses were produced. Paleoanthropology never operated in a vacuum. Global events, concerns of science at large, and the proclivities of its practitioners conspired time and again to connect ideas about human predation to studies of aggression. And, invariably, new data from the human fossil record or from research on great apes, our closest living relatives, eventually called for a reassessment of that purported linkage between hunting and hostility.

Currently, we are firmly in the latter part of this repeating cycle. In the past fifteen or so years, it is primatologists who have generated the most provocative ideas about the presumed connections between human aggression and hunting and about how our earliest ancestors interacted with their biological symbionts and competitors. In particular, the keen observations of extant primates by Craig Stanford, Richard Wrangham, and Donna Hart and Robert Sussman have led to prominent but divergent conclusions about human origins. Drawing on his fieldwork in the forests of Tanzania, Stanford argued that primordial men were, like chimpanzees, eager and efficient killers, flesh-hungry Hunting Apes. Viewing the world through a darker lens, Wrangham upped the ante. His broad survey of ape behavior suggested to him that our forebears were not just hunters but that our agnatic ancestors were Demonic Males, hyperantagonistic louts, fully capable of dragging women around by their hair, and worse. Just as the collective work of Stanford and Wrangham brought the blood-letting to a fever pitch by the early 2000s, Hart and Sussman entered the scene to offset any such notions of Stone Age machismo and brutishness. They reminded us that most wild primates live a precarious existence, surrounded by and subject to the whims of hungry, prowling predators. Arguing by analogy, they continued that humans of the past must surely have faced the same looming conditions as do the primates of today. This opposing construct gave us Man the Hunted, the idea that our ancestors lived under continual menace from sabertooth cats, giant hyenas, and even large birds—eking out a spare existence in the shadows of a predator's world. So it is that we are left with the latest incarnations of the two great, contrasting narratives of human evolution: early man as misanthrope and mighty hunter versus early man as milksop.

In my opinion, there is merit in both of these views of early human life. However, I also argue that in perhaps underestimating—and surely underreporting—the importance of a rich archaeological record, produced by our Stone Age ancestors and stretching back at least two and a half million years into the past, the otherwise excellent accounts of my monkey- and ape-studying colleagues lack the essential component of the story. Simply put, the archaeological record stands as testament to the actual behavior of our prehistoric forerunners. Admittedly, this stone-and-bone witness of past action is accessible to us only in glimpses—the record is woefully incomplete, subject to the vagaries of ancient preservation and modern discovery. But those glimpses are still imbued with a genuineness of testimony that data on modern primate behavior can only approximate in their stead. Paleoanthropologist Tim White has opined in a similar context, "The rich detail of the modern world compared to the paucity of the prehistoric world can serve to obscure the recognition and analysis of evolutionary novelty. The present illuminates the past in myriad ways. However, the unwary paleobiologist can easily misinterpret past organisms by using inappropriate interpretive constructs based solely on modern form and function."

My already mild critique of the primate-centric approach to reconstructing our evolutionary history is softened even more by the undeniable fact that the work of Stanford, Wrangham, Hart, and Sussman (as well as many other primate specialists) is as fundamental as it is exceptional. In fact, without it science lacks the proper comparative framework to discern those precious few aspects of human uniqueness that might also be the basis of humanness. Those two things—human uniqueness and humanness—are, of course, different. Chimpanzees don't build skyscrapers, and baboons can't conduct orchestral symphonies (although it would be fun to watch them give it a go). More than that, though: neither a chimpanzee nor a baboon could even create and manage a simple campfire without a human's prompting and training. But these uniquely human capabilities—grand and humble—are, all the same, just overlays on a now very, very deeply contained human essence, which, if to be revealed, will require the efforts of not just geneticists, psychologists, and primate behaviorists but also those of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists. This little book concerns itself primarily with presenting current data from these latter two disciplines in supplement to the fine primatological work already extant. Combining these datasets is intended to uncover the basis of humanness from natural history records that are always tantalizing but that are also usually imperfect and, oftentimes, frustratingly resistant. Reduced, the story is a simple one. Human hunting underlies humanness. Successful human hunting is necessarily decoupled from human aggression. Tools, in enhancing the distance between a human hunter and its nonhuman prey, facilitated this decoupling of action and emotion.

The first proposition isn't original. Many paleoanthropologists have, over a long time, argued that hunting underpins humanness. Language is the only other proposed prime mover of "becoming human" that equals the influence of the "hunting hypothesis." Determining the prehistoric emergence of either—human-styled hunting or language—remains elusive, but that does not discourage continuing efforts. Most of those intellectual labors pivot around Homo erectus, a well-known species of extinct human ancestor that existed between 1.8 million and 500,000 years ago.


The discovery, relegation, and eventual scientific acceptance of Homo erectus—and the psychological impact of its transition through those stages on its discoverer—is often told. In the end, Eugène Dubois emerges as a flawed hero, one whose emotional oscillation between impracticable tenacity and crushing resignation is finally vindicated posthumously, and only in historical retrospection. The story began valiantly enough in 1887 when Dubois bucked the shared academic wisdom that humans first evolved in Europe. Undeterred by archaic-looking (and thus possibly quite ancient) Neandertal fossils already known from various locales in Europe, Dubois acted instead on Darwin's prescient notion about the biogeography of human origins. Like Lord Monboddo (James Burnett), the famous Scottish jurist of nearly one hundred years before him, Darwin recognized that because our closest living relatives, the apes, are all tropical species, then the tropics must be where our most recent common ancestor with the apes resided, as well as where the earliest members of each descending lineage must have evolved. From that elegantly reasoned starting point, a three-year stretch of Dubois's search for man's earliest ancestor was, in contrast, epitomized by a paleontological naïveté surpassed only by its human cost. Supporting himself as a medical officer in the Royal Dutch East Indies Army, Dubois's fossil prospecting on Sumatra was an abject failure: no truly ancient fossils were recovered, one of his two engineers died, and several members of his conscripted prisoner work crew deserted. Others of those who toughed it out were wretchedly ill for much of the expedition. It was only in 1890 that Dubois finally moved to more fertile ground in Java, where a human skull discovered a few years earlier piqued his interest. By November 1890, Dubois's crew had unearthed a gnarly piece of lower jawbone that was undoubtedly that of a hominin (that is, a member of the zoological group that includes modern humans and all extinct species that are more closely related to us than they are to chimpanzees, with whom the hominins shared a most recent common ancestor about 6 million years ago). Motivated, Dubois continued his searches in Java, where, in October 1891, he found a hominin skullcap on the banks of the Solo River, and a hominin thigh bone ten months later. This was a truly impressive haul, especially considering that Dubois pressed on in spite of the orthodoxy of the time that largely consigned human origins research in the tropics as a wild goose chase.

Unfortunately, even when presented with Dubois's impressive proof to the contrary, that prevailing attitude did not desist. The best reception Dubois found for his fossils was lukewarm. Based on its morphology, competent anatomists could not deny that the thigh bone would have supported a two-legged, upright-walking (bipedal) hominin. But, most also refused to accept an association between the thigh bone and the beetle-browed skullcap, which they conjectured belonged to a giant, gibbonlike ape rather than to a transitional human species, as Dubois claimed. Initially, Dubois rallied against this poor treatment and defended the hominin status of Pithecanthropus erectus ("upright ape-man," the original scientific moniker of Homo erectus) on the European lecture circuit, but around the turn of the twentieth century he abruptly silenced himself on the subject and hid the fossils.

Dubois's interpretation of Homo erectus as a genuine human ancestor was ultimately vindicated by subsequent discovery of the species's remains at other sites throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa. Study of those finds gradually built up a compelling picture of an animal that was quite distinct from Australopithecus, the genus of true ape-man species from the Pliocene and lower Pleistocene (geological epochs that spanned, collectively, 5.3 million–780,000 years ago), and from the very earliest putative hominins like Ardipithecus, which first appeared about 7 million years ago, late in the Miocene Epoch. Conspicuously, Homo erectus skulls—with brainpan volumes ranging from 600 to 1067 cubic centimeters, and with an average somewhere around 880 cubic centimeters—are much larger than those of modern apes, ancient ape-men, and putative Miocene root hominins. (Compare the relatively impressive cranial capacity of Homo erectus to an apish 350– to 600–cubic centimeter range for Australopithecus, 300–350 for Ardipithecus, and a modern human average of about 1400 cubic centimeters.) Corresponding to the expanded braincase of Homo erectus, is its reduced, somewhat less projecting face as compared to apes and earlier occurring hominins. Inferred from isolated scraps of the skeleton, sketchy estimates put Homo erectus adults at around five to five and a half feet in height and about 120 pounds. Each of these findings was an exciting incremental advance beyond Dubois's rudimentary understanding of Homo erectus. But, it was a discovery made nearly thirty years ago in the fossil-rich badlands of northern Kenya that truly pulled back the veil to reveal Homo erectus in its emergent humanness. The first miniscule fragments of what would eventually be pieced together into a nearly complete skeleton of Homo erectus (figure 1) were found by legendary fossil hunter Kamoya Kimeu at an unassuming site called Nariokotome.

Analysis of the Nariokotome Homo erectus skeleton disclosed a seemingly young boy with a body of nearly adult stature—a body that was long and linear, the kind of physique that is best adapted to the tropics, able to maximize heat dissipation across its relatively expansive surface area compared to its relatively small volume. Moreover, Nariokotome Boy's arms and legs are also proportioned in the same way as are those of modern people. This implies to many anatomists that he possessed a more efficient, modern humanlike upright gait than did the putative root hominins and ape-men, some of which had extremely wide hips, relatively short legs, and even opposable big toes—morphology that would have, in comparison to Homo erectus, cost these types of hominins some efficiency in two-legged, bipedal striding. The narrow but deep, barrel-shaped ribcage of Nariokotome Boy is also like ours and contrasts with the inverted funnel-shaped ribcages of apes (more on this seemingly innocuous difference later in this chapter).


Excerpted from Rough and Tumble by Travis Rayne Pickering. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. A Man among Apes
2. Prehistoric Bloodsport
3. Tamping the Simian Urge
4. Conceiving Our Past
5. Death from Above




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