Configurational approach to identifying the earliest hominin butchers.

Research paper by Manuel M Domínguez-Rodrigo, Travis Rayne TR Pickering, Henry T HT Bunn

Indexed on: 17 Nov '10Published on: 17 Nov '10Published in: PNAS


The announcement of two approximately 3.4-million-y-old purportedly butchered fossil bones from the Dikika paleoanthropological research area (Lower Awash Valley, Ethiopia) could profoundly alter our understanding of human evolution. Butchering damage on the Dikika bones would imply that tool-assisted meat-eating began approximately 800,000 y before previously thought, based on butchered bones from 2.6- to 2.5-million-y-old sites at the Ethiopian Gona and Bouri localities. Further, the only hominin currently known from Dikika at approximately 3.4 Ma is Australopithecus afarensis, a temporally and geographically widespread species unassociated previously with any archaeological evidence of butchering. Our taphonomic configurational approach to assess the claims of A. afarensis butchery at Dikika suggests the claims of unexpectedly early butchering at the site are not warranted. The Dikika research group focused its analysis on the morphology of the marks in question but failed to demonstrate, through recovery of similarly marked in situ fossils, the exact provenience of the published fossils, and failed to note occurrences of random striae on the cortices of the published fossils (incurred through incidental movement of the defleshed specimens across and/or within their abrasive encasing sediments). The occurrence of such random striae (sometimes called collectively "trampling" damage) on the two fossils provide the configurational context for rejection of the claimed butchery marks. The earliest best evidence for hominin butchery thus remains at 2.6 to 2.5 Ma, presumably associated with more derived species than A. afarensis.