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The Major Food Acquisition Strategies Used by Hominines from 2mya until 8,000ya

Updated on September 30, 2014

Table 1: Groups of humans and their developments

Approximate Time Frame
Bipedal feet, came out from the trees
Homo habilis
Stayed around Africa
Homo erectus
Taller, greater dexterity
Homo sapiens
200,000 years+
African migration, tools, became highly developed, specialised, advanced food acquisition techniques

Figure 1: Temporal Distribution of Some of the Species Discussed

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Table 2: Development of technologies for the acquisition and processing of food

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Neanderthals were a possible Homo sapien sub-species who were solely reliant on hunting, with a very protein-rich diet and so did not diversify in their food sources [Table 1]. Thus they became extinct in the ice age, due to the low numbers of prey because of the climate change altering the vegetation that was sustaining this prey. The same thing is thought to have occurred to the Skebaran group of Homo sapiens 13,000 years ago, even though they had new hunting technologies such as the Harif arrowhead (to increase the damage of the prey) [Figure 1]. Thus, humans were not able to afford having specialisms to food sources in this way, especially when the constant climate fluctuations 70,000 years ago were occurring, since it drastically altered the environment and so the organisms within it (including the plants and animals the humans were using as sustenance). This also made agriculture and domestication not possible, since it requires a stable environment. Thus, Homo sapiens spent 95% of their time as hunter gatherers.

Due to Gingerich (1985) and his studies on late Palaeocene and early Eocene mammals in North America, mammalian faunal change is seen as a consequence of climatic cooling followed by warming at this time. Thus, as Bergman’s rule states, in cold climates, animals have larger body sizes due to the temperature (and complexities linking to this, for example, less competition, rescued surface area to volume ratio for heat exchange and greater food availability). Therefore, when the world was cooler, the hunter gatherers were able to rely on mega herbivores, where just one kill would provide the macro and micronutrients to feed a large group for a long time.

To enable the hunter gatherers to kill such large animals, they needed to alter the balances of advantages. So tools replaced biological evolution with cultural evolution [Table 2]. These tools allowed the humans to have advantages that they would not have usually had, enabling them to have a greater diversity of food sources. For example, spears allowed the humans to kill their prey at a distance, reducing the likelihood that one if the hunters would be harmed by the defensive mechanism of the prey e.g. horns. Poison also aided hunting, however it took communication and trial and error to find toxins that would harm the animal but not taint the flesh, so the meat could still be eaten. Information such as this was important pass between the generations, making the need to live together. The humans also lived in societies that required cooperation since they were unable to hunt effectively alone. However, the mega herbivores became less common as the world warmed, resulting in humans moving down the trophic levels and predating medium prey (e.g. rabbits) and some smaller prey (e.g. insects). Since they are smaller food packets, more of them needed to be caught, increasing the energy required to hunt them and decreasing the efficiency of the energy used to hunt. Consequently, humans needed to alter the food acquisition strategies to be able to survive.

One important development was the use of grains, a great source of energy in the form of cellulose. Grinders allowed wild grasses (for example, cereal seeds) that would have otherwise passed through the digestive system, be digested in a powdery flour-format. The flour was also able to be utilised in the form of bread. Baking ovens fragmented the starch in flour, making it more digestible, since the glucose is readily available. Furthermore, this provided a source of portable food, allowing the men to be able to travel further and hunt for longer. Also, baskets were made. They could be used to store grains so the work done was more efficient and fewer were lost. This also meant that these baskets could be buried, providing the humans with a food source for when food availability was poor (for example during the winter), reducing the need for them to migrate to find new sources of food. However, it did make them become more territorial over their living areas, since they were worried about losing these food sources.

An example of a territorial sedentary culture is the Kebaram culture in the Middle East 23,000 years ago. They had some villages that had pit dwellings (holes in the ground covered with sticks and grass as a roof) as an easily made shelter and storage device. They were able to live like this because they were living in a productive area and so could rely on the grains, fruits, berries, woodland and medium herbivores, rather than the prey being depleted or migrating. An advantage of living in this way is that the entire group was no longer required for food acquisition, allowing more people to focus on the creation of more specialisation of technology to continue competing with other villages. An example of this is salting fish, smoking and drying meat (even though it lost vitamins, such as vitamin C) and being plant managers. In all, the people were taller than today with few deficiencies, since the majority of their requirements for micro and macronutrient were met, until the climate changed 13,000 years ago.

Humans actually began to modify their environment 50,000 years ago, making them non-wild habitats. For example, by chasing away the natural consumers (herbivores) of crops they wished to protect, allowing that particular species’ population to grow. Similarly, they would remove their competition by harrowing (removing older crops or shrubs to let the new ones grow). This methodology was further developed by the Kumeyaay people, who controlled the burning of chaparral grassland to improve the forage for the (non-domesticated) deer that they hunted, making the grass sweet and tender.

The Kumeyaay people lived in San Diego country more than 10,000 years ago. They were a resourceful people, who greatly modified their surrounding environments to be able to survive in a seemingly useless land. For example, by re-sowing a proportion of edible grain (from wild grasses) that had been harvested. In the mainland, they created groves of wild oak and pine for their edible nuts, relocating them to high altitudes so they would be able to grow in the area (The Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valle also did a similar thing before the 1950s). They also systemically burned the tree groves to increase the fruit yield. The Kumeyaay people also utilised the coast, planting desert palm and mesquite, as well as plants they could yield fruit from (for example, agave, yucca and wild grapes). To harvest the two areas of crop, the people would migrate. To provide some emergency water sources on the migration paths, the Kumeyaay people planted cacti near the camp and on the trail. This was of particular importance because the rivers would dry during the summer.

This reliance on plants also occurred in the Northern group during the mini ice age 13, 000 years ago, but to a greater and more desperate extent. They used species which are high in starch, such as wheat, rye, that have large seeds and are suitable for long term storage. However, it was difficult to survive because arid tolerant grasses would kill crops due to out competition. This resulted in aggressive management of the environment being required for survival, since the human population was under great stress and already had vitamin deficiencies. Thus, the humans weeded the area and provided the crops with water (irrigation) by diverting rivers with ditches or moving to wetter lands. This was particularly evident with the case study of the Abuhureyra in North Syria. However, the lusher grass drew herbivores, thus fences were added to remove the natural predators of the crops, resulting in a domesticated landscape.

This domestication was taken to greater extremes by the Abuhureyra. They discovered a mutation in rye seeds which caused them to have a larger seed size and so contain more food and nutrients. This was found to be an inherited trait, resulting in the start of human selection and breeding. Thus domesticated version was a non-optimal seed size for the environment (in Darwinian terms), since although it grew and matured quicker, it was more attractive to herbivores and caused stalk bending. To prevent this stalk bending, seed shattering was delayed. This meant that the grains were more strongly attached to the stems in the abscission zone to enable the whole stalk to be collected with a scythe and then the seeds removed by threshing. This made the collection of wheat, barley and rice (in China) be collected more efficiently, since fewer seeds would fall on the floor during collection, however, it would be a greater target for herbivores.

Humans were soon ‘locked’ into this farming way of life, during the Holocene era from 11,000 years ago. This is because the population was too great (for example, villages of 1-5000 to whole towns) to rely on hunting and the males could no longer leave the crops to hunt for animals. This was also added by the climate becoming warmer and so better for crop productivity. There was also the development of silos to store food, such as grain, to use as an insurance policy in case of food shortages. These buildings encouraged the introduction of animals into everyday life. For example cats were tolerated to kill the rodents who were attracted to the silos, to defend the food source, and were also fed when rodents were scarce.

This idea was taken further with the concept of animal domestication. The humans trapped and controlled animals, keeping them to kill as a food source. They controlled animal behavioural issues by killing those with unfavourable traits (e.g. aggression) and breeding those without them, making them more tame so even children could care for the animals. This meant that there was less for each person to do, meaning human roles were able to be more specialised, for example into pottery and tool-making. An example of this was the selective breeding of aurochs to eventually produce cows. Thus, multipurpose farming was established, with both crops and animals, with humans providing each with an unnatural environmental and protecting and nourishing them. Consequently, humans eventually decreased their diversity of food sources and instead focused on getting the greatest yield possible from a smaller number of plant and animal species, aided by food acquisition technologies.


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