Prey mortality profiles indicate that Early Pleistocene Homo at Olduvai was an ambush predator

Hunters prefer high fat prime adults.


Hunter-gatherer populations are known to abandon prey when they’re too lean [39]. Instead, they’ll target animals that appear fatter [40], especially large adults [41]

Prey mortality profiles indicate that Early Pleistocene Homo at Olduvai was an ambush predator


The prime-adult-dominated mortality profile of large bovids in the 1.8 Ma FLK Zinj assemblage, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, was recently attributed to ambush hunting by early Homo (Bunn, H.T., Pickering, T.R. 2010. Quat. Res. 74, 395–404). We now investigate a logical follow-up question: is enough known about the causes and pervasiveness of prime-adult-dominated mortality profiles (defined as >70% prime adults) from modern ecosystems and from archaeological sites to warrant their attribution solely to hominin hunting? Besides hominin hunting, three methods of scavenging could have provided the large bovids butchered at FLK Zinj: first-access scavenging from non-predator-related accidents; late-access passive scavenging from lion (or other) kills; early-access aggressive scavenging from lion (or other) kills.

We present new data on hunted prey from Hadza bow hunting (e.g., N = 50 impala; N = 18 greater kudu) near Lake Eyasi, Tanzania, and from San bow hunting (N = 13 gemsbok) in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana, documenting non-selective, living-structure profiles. We present new data on drowned wildebeest (N = 175) from Lake Masek, in the Serengeti, documenting many prime adults but also a significantly high percentage of old adults, unlike the profile at FLK Zinj. We also examine mortality profiles from modern African lions and from Old World Pleistocene archaeological sites, revealing that while prime-dominated profiles are present in some archaeological assemblages, particularly some Late Pleistocene European sites involving cervids, they are not documented from lion or other larger carnivore predation; moreover, living-structure profiles with prime adults representing ∼50–60% of prey are common, particularly in African archaeological assemblages involving bovids hunted by humans. Although taphonomic bias, prey socioecology, and season of death may all influence mortality profiles, prime-dominated profiles require careful evaluation. The prime-dominated profile at FLK Zinj is significantly different from profiles formed by the three scavenging methods, which likely indicates hunting by Early Pleistocene Homo.