Prehistoric humans may have been able to compete with giant hyenas for the carcasses left behind by saber-toothed cats and jaguars hundreds of thousands of years ago.
A study published in the journal Scientific reports provides new insight into the debate over the role that scavenging played for early hominins, the group that includes modern humans and our extinct relatives.
Some previous research has hypothesized that the number of carcasses left behind by saber-toothed cats may have helped sustain early hominin populations in southern Europe. However, it remained unclear whether other large scavengers, such as giant hyenas, would have limited hominin access to these carcasses.
For the study, a team of researchers conducted computer simulations to model scenarios in which hominins competed with giant hyenas for carrion in southern Europe about 1.2 to 0.8 million years ago.
The researchers simulated whether it was an extinct species of saber-toothed cat Homotherium latidens And Megantereon Whitei and the European jaguar (Panthera gombaszoegensis) could have left behind enough carrion to support hyena and hominin populations.
While animal consumption played an important role in the diet of early hominins, whether these people obtained this food through scavenging or by hunting large mammals remains controversial.
“There is an unresolved debate among archaeologists about the role of carrion collecting as a relevant food procurement strategy for early humans. “Most of the debate is based on the interpretation of the scarce and fragmentary evidence provided by the archaeological record,” Jesús Rodríguez, an author of the study with the National Research Center for Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Spain, said Newsweek.
“Without denying that the archaeological evidence should be viewed as the strongest argument to resolve the question, our intention was to bring elements from a different perspective to the debate. Our focus was on the feasibility of scavenging by early humans from an ecological perspective. taking into account the predators and competitors present in the environment at that time.
So far, most of the debate has focused on Africa. The aim of the study was to examine the situation on the Iberian Peninsula – a strip of land in southwestern Europe that is now mainly divided between Spain and Portugal – towards the end of the Early Pleistocene (about 2.6 to 0.8 million years ago) . At the end of this period, people from Africa came to Europe.
“Since it is not possible to recreate past ecosystems in the real world, we simulated the behavior of predators, hominins and their competitors on the computer. Of course, computer simulations cannot prove that something happened, but they can be used to show that something was not possible or that it was possible under certain conditions,” Rodríguez said.
The simulations the researchers ran included the extinct giant hyena (Pachycrocuta brevirostris). This species was the largest member of the hyena family that ever existed.
It was larger than modern spotted hyenas, standing more than three feet tall and weighing 220 pounds or more. This hyena had a short face and very robust jaws and teeth, making it a very effective bone cruncher.
“As you may ask, a carnivore of this size would be a formidable enemy for a single hominin. However, a group of hominins could drive away a hyena by throwing stones and making an aggressive display,” Rodríguez said.
“The main advantage of hominins was their sociality and their ability to work together to drive away hyenas and other competitors. Perhaps they used their high learning ability to predict where the likelihood of finding carrion was higher, but that is speculative.”
Conducting the simulations demonstrated that maintaining optimal group size is critical to the success of the hominin collection strategy. According to the simulations, they would have been most successful at picking up carcasses in medium-sized groups.
These groups may have been able to regularly obtain food through scavenging, even in competition with giant hyenas, if they were large enough to drive these animals away. However, if the groups were too large, they would not be satisfied by a single carcass and would have to expend energy searching for additional resources.
“We show that resources were sufficient to maintain populations of hyenas and hominins that competed for carrion, and that hominins could successfully coexist with hyenas that competed with them for carrion,” Rodríguez said.
The study’s results support claims that saber-toothed cats left behind carcasses that contained large amounts of edible food, researchers said. The authors speculate that the scavenged remains may have been an important source of meat and fat for hominins, particularly in winter when plant resources were scarce.