Tag Archives: hunter-gatherer

African hunter-gatherers prefer squatting to sitting — and this may explain why they’re healthier

Credit: David Raichlen.

Humans conquered this world thanks to our restless sense of adventure and ingenuity. At the same time, people are also some of the foremost slackers in the animal kingdom. This can be problematic if you live a modern lifestyle that’s predicated on sedentary activities, which is why it’s interesting and perhaps even useful to understand how our ancestors rested when they took a break.

According to researchers at the University of Southern California, evolutionary pressures favor the conservation of energy. But if that’s the case, why do we sit in the first place? I mean, studies suggest that sitting for prolonged periods of time hurts your heart, shortens lifespan, increases the risk of diabetes, ruins your back, and can even lead to varicose.

These problems are almost nonexistent for Tanzanian hunter-gatherers known as the Hadza, one of the few people left in the world that continue to live the way humans have lived thousands of years ago.

Researchers led by David Raichlen, a professor of human and evolutionary biology at the University of Southern California, strapped tracking devices to Hazda participants in order to measure their sedentary behavior and muscle activity. This was a lot more challenging to do than it sounds since the researchers had to work in the field with the Hazda, in a remote part of Tanzania without access to electricity, food, or running water.

Although the Hazda were very active throughout their day, engaging in high-intensity physical activity that was up to three times the 22 minutes per day recommended by US federal health guidelines, they also had very high levels of inactivity.

Hazda participants in resting postures Photo: David Raichlen.

In fact, the Hazda spend as much time being sedentary as humans in developed countries — around 9 to 10 hours a day. But, despite this, the incidence of diseases associated with long periods of sitting in industrial countries is almost nonexistent.

“The biggest surprise was finding that the amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors was similar in the Hadza and in US populations. We expected hunter-gatherers to rest less,” Raichlen told ZME Science.

However, when the hunter-gatherers are resting, they’re not sitting. Instead, their favorite resting positions are kneeling and squatting.

Special devices that measured muscle contractions in the lower limbs showed that squatting and kneeling involved more muscle activity compared to sitting. This means that the Hazda are stressing their muscles even when resting, contributing to more physical activity throughout the day.

In contrast, the only time people work their legs while sitting in their office jobs is when they bend their knees.

“We suggest these more active resting postures are likely ancient and may help explain why the recent development of chair-sitting is harmful,” Raichlen said.

While behaviors that lead to conservation of energy were favorable for our ancestors, this isn’t necessarily true anymore for individuals who live in industrialized countries.

Does that mean that you should swap your standing desk for a squat rack? That’s just impractical — but there is value in being aware that prolonged sitting hurts your health.

“Given that most of us stopped squatting and kneeling after childhood, we don’t recommend using those postures necessarily. However, breaking up periods of sitting, or finding ways to increase muscle activity when sedentary may be a good idea,” Raichlen told ZME Science.

“We are continuing to examine physical activity and inactivity from an evolutionary perspective and are planning experiments to detail the physiological effects of different resting postures. We believe that this study is a good example of how an evolutionary perspective can enhance our understanding of how behaviors influence health,” he added.

The findings appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pecos River style pictographs in Rattlesnake Canyon. You can see a rattlesnake depiction on the left of a dark shaman figure. Credit: Steve Black.

Fossilized poop shows ancient hunter-gatherer ate a rattlesnake whole — fangs included

A rattlesnake fang found in 1,500-year-old fossilized poop. Credit: E. M. Sonderman.

A rattlesnake fang found in 1,500-year-old fossilized poop. Credit: E. M. Sonderman.

More than 1,500 years ago, a really brave hunter-gatherer ate an entire rattlesnake, including its one-centimeter-long fangs. We know about this because the fangs and other traces of the snake were pooped out, becoming fossilized as coprolites which archaeologists discovered in a rock shelter in southwest Texas. This is the first evidence of whole-snake consumption in the fossil record.

These coprolites were part of a collection of over 1,000 such samples collected during the 1960s in Conejo Shelter, found in Lower Pecos Canyonlands, Texas. Archaeologists believe that humans have inhabited the region for 12,000-14,000 years. Judging from the quality and quantity of coprolites found at the rock shelter, the site seems to have served the role of a latrine.

Analyzing ancient poop under a microscope might not sound like the glamorous work you’d expect to see in movies about archaeology. But, in reality, this kind of work can be quite exciting. By studying fossilized feces it is possible to discern what ancient people’s diets looked like thousands of years ago, essentially learning more about their way of life than most ruins or shards of pottery could ever reveal. The individual also consumed an assortment of plants like Agave lechuguilla and Liliaceae flowers, Dasylirion fibers, and an Opuntia cactus.

Pecos River style pictographs in Rattlesnake Canyon. You can see a rattlesnake depiction on the left of a dark shaman figure. Credit: Steve Black.

Pecos River style pictographs in Rattlesnake Canyon. You can see a rattlesnake depiction on the left of a dark shaman figure. Credit: Steve Black.

The coprolites were carbon dated to around 1,500 years ago, almost a millennium before the first European set foot on the continent. These pre-Columbian hunter-gatherers who lived in the region likely had to deal with quite a lot of adversity during that time. The harsh desert conditions mean that there wasn’t that much food to forage, so anything that an individual could find to eat was precious, whether rodents, rabbits, or even venomous snakes.

However, this eccentric hunter-gatherer likely didn’t consume the rattlesnake for substance. Instead, researchers have a hunch that the viper — which was either a western diamondback rattlesnake or copperhead — was devoured whole for ritualistic purposes. It’s not uncommon for people of that age to consume venomous snakes, but they would do so only after removing the heat, rattle, and skin prior to cooking. Secondly, the other foodstuff found in the same coprolites samples suggests that the hunter-gatherer wasn’t particularly starving or desperate for food. Another clue that the snake dinner might have been part of a ritual lies in the rock art made by Lower Pecos people, which frequently depicts snakes.

“Future analyses of coprolites from this lens and the surrounding contexts will further our current understanding of this unique gastrological event and better situate it in the context of diet patterns and paleoenvironmental adaptions in the Lower Pecos,” the authors wrote.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.



Farmer toy.

Europe’s first farmers mingled with the locals, slowly mixing the communities together

Early farmers didn’t move in and replace hunter-gatherers from the get-go, new research has found. Instead, the two coexisted and interacted for some time after early farmers spread across Europe.

Farmer toy.

Image credits Erika Wittlieb.

The agricultural revolution is one of the most hotly debated turning points in human history. In Europe, the shift from foraging and hunting to a more sedentary, farming lifestyle started around 10.000 years ago. It would culminate in farmers largely replacing pre-existing hunter-gatherer communities.

‘How do you do’ or ‘I’m gonna stab you’?

Previous studies of ancient DNA have shown that the agricultural revolution in Europe wasn’t based on a flow of ideas. Rather, the spread of farming throughout the continent was owed to farmer populations from the Near East expanding into the continent and bringing the practice along with them. Finding a single point of origin for early farming populations throughout Europe was an unexpected discovery, given how diverse prehistoric cultures were in this area.

However, the intricacies of this process are still poorly understood. For example, we don’t really know if it was a peaceful transition, one done at scythe-point, or one aided by disease. In other words, whether newly-arrived farmers would displace the people already living in Europe through war and disease, or they simply co-existed with and out-competed them over time.

The current study suggests it was likely the latter. It found that these two groups likely lived side-by-side following farmers’ migration into Europe. Later, they would start slowly integrating local hunter-gatherers into their communities, a process that seems to have increased in speed and scope as time went on.

The authors from Harvard Medical School, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History say that these early farming communities also exhibited various levels of hunter-gatherer ancestry. The current paper focused on this element, and the wider framework of interactions between early farmers and preexisting hunter-gatherer groups in three locations: the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Spain and Portugal), the Middle-Elbe-Saale region in north-central Europe, and the Carpathian Basin (largely overlapping today’s Hungary and western Romania).

The team drew on high-resolution genotyping techniques to analyze the genomes of 180 early farmers, 130 of whom are newly reported in this study. The individuals lived from around 6000 BC to 2200 BC.

“We find that the hunter-gatherer admixture varied locally but more importantly differed widely between the three main regions,” says Mark Lipson, a researcher in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and co-first author of the paper. “This means that local hunter-gatherers were slowly but steadily integrated into early farming communities.”

The share of hunter-gatherer genes in these communities’ genome never reached high levels, but it did increase over time. This suggests that hunter-gatherers weren’t pushed out by the encroaching farmers — rather, the two groups lived side-by-side, developing deeper ties and interacting more frequently over time.

Local interactions

Furthermore, the team reports that farmers in each location only mingled with hunter-gatherers from the same area. This suggests that once they remained largely sedentary after settling an area, thus limiting their interaction with farming or hunter-gatherer communities farther away.

This allowed the researchers to differentiate groups of early European farmers by their “specific local hunter-gatherer signature,” says co-first author Anna Szécsényi-Nagy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, adding that it’s the first time anyone has been able to do so. Farmers in Spain, she explains, “share hunter-gatherer ancestry with a pre-agricultural individual from La Braña, Spain.” Those in central Europe are more closely tied to groups such as hunter-gatherers from the Loschbour area, Luxembourg, and those in the Carpathian basin share ties with local groups in their area.

Using statistical models to track the origin of DNA blocks inherited by 90 individuals from the Carpathian Basin who lived in roughly the same period, the team also produced a rough estimate of how the populations mixed. The results indicate an ongoing process, starting off small and picking up in speed and intensity over time.

“We found that the most probable scenario is an initial, small-scale, admixture pulse between the two populations that was followed by continuous gene flow over many centuries,” says senior lead author David Reich, professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School.

The team believes that thorough, detailed databases similar to the one used in their study could help reveal new information about how and when peoples in other areas of the world mixed and evolved.

The paper “Parallel palaeogenomic transects reveal complex genetic history of early European farmers” has been published in the journal Nature.


Time to update the Paleo Diet — it was heavy on plants and veggies, archaeologists found

Our stone-age ancestors probably ate a lot of veggies too, researchers have found by examining a site in Israel. Not only this, but they had a lot more diverse diet than we do today.


Like this, but with more “cave”.
Image credits Unsplash / Pexels.

The role of meat in ancient human diets usually plays a large part in discussions on the subject for a very simple reason — the bones of butchered animals, along with the tool marks left on them, tend to preserve really well for archaeologists to find. Plant matter usually rots away pretty fast. And there’s also probably a cool factor involved. Stone-age men taking up huge prey with stone-tipped spears is awesome — something that gathering doesn’t evoke. Plants you can just kinda…pick up from the ground.

Still, be it due to lack of evidence or wow-factor, this leaves the role of veggies underrepresented in our understanding of what they ate. It also skews Paleo-diet cookbooks towards meats. But recent archaeological work at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site in northern Israel has provided the first glimpse into what kind of plants our ancestors had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with animal-sourced food.

The site was inhabited some 780,000 years ago, probably by Homo erectus or a close relative. Waterlogging at the site helped preserve the foods, both plants as well as meat. Their diets were more diverse than what we eat today and included stuff you’d be hard-pressed to call “food”, such as roasted acorns or sedges.

Everything — it’s what’s for dinner

Yoel Melamed and Naama Goren-Inbar at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, and their colleagues have cataloged all the plant remains from the site during times where there was evidence of human activity. They then compared the remains from times where there is no trace of humans, to see what was indigenous and which plants were deliberately brought to the camp from the surrounding area.

They found that while you couldn’t be persuaded to eat your veggies on pain of death, our ancestors had no such qualms. Some 55 different kinds of plants were found at the site. These were eaten as vegetables or harvested for nuts, fruits, seeds, and roots. That’s a range of foodstuffs that’s enviable even today.

“The modern human diet is clearly restricted when compared to the [early] hominin diet or even to the early farmers’ diet,” says Goren-Inbar.

For example, evidence points to the consumption of the starchy white seeds of Euryale ferox, a type of water lily which probably grew in clumps. Bulrushes were also probably harvested for their starchy rhizomes. Thistle seeds were probably gathered seasonally as they’re a good source of oils. Later in the year, roasted acorns would come on the menu, as they’re an excellent source of starch — although wild boars and rodents were also snatching them up. Water chestnuts were also gathered as well as olives — which remain a core ingredient of the Mediterranean diet even today.

It’s not really surprising if you think about it. Early humans were hunter-gatherers, so they probably ate whatever they could find throughout the year — and you don’t want to pass on any meal in the wild. Earlier work at the site also revealed that this resourcefulness also shone through when eating the animals they hunted, such as consuming elephant brain.

“It gives one a substantial element of security when particular sources become rare or absent,” Goren-Inbar added.

Still, while the work has shown us what plants they ate, it doesn’t help us determine the ratios of what they ate. There was likely no set balance between meat and plant, as our opportunistic ancestors ate whatever has available at the time. But obtaining meat is more calorie and time intensive than harvesting plants. Humans also need plant-derived nutrients supplemented by relatively little meat and fat to survive. So the people here were likely predominantly vegetarians. Not strictly vegetarian, but the wide array of plants found at the site suggest that they were a major part of human diet even before agriculture.

The site also shows some of the earliest traces of controlled fire use and of tools to process foods before cooking. Coupled with the knowledge of which plants were available by season, this could have allowed the hominids to inhabit the same site all year round.

The full paper “The plant component of an Acheulian diet at Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov, Israel” has been published in the journal PNAS.

10,000 Year Old Hunter-Gatherer Massacre Uncovered

We tend to think of war as something associated with a static civilizations. Cities and countries sending armies to fight each other, invading and conquering lands in the process. But war may have emerged even before humans settled down – a group of archaeologists found the remains of hunter-gatherers massacred 10,000 years ago.

Marta Mirazón Lahr

Violence seems to be an almost inescapable reality of human nature. History abounds with examples of wars from the most ancient times, but what about prehistoric times?

Archaeologists have uncovered fossils of men, women and children who were brutally killed, sadly extending the timeline of violent encounters between humans. The discovery of the 27 unfortunate foragers highlights the darker side of life for hunter-gatherers – in grim detail.

The discovery was made by researchers from Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES) about 20 miles (30 km) west of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. Out of the 27 people, one man’s skeleton still had a sharp obsidian blade stuck in his skull. Another man had a crushed skull, probably after being hit by a club. Arrow wounds and arrowheads were found in abundance. Many victims had projectile wounds to the neck and broken skulls, hands, knees and ribs and one woman, in her last stages of pregnancy was bound by her hands and feet and killed – the bones of her fetus were also found. There is enough evidence to say that this was a war-like massacre.

They were bound in this position. Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr

“It is a brutal, physical, lethal attack with the intention to kill those individuals who could put up a defense or mount a counter-attack, or who perhaps were of no use to them, whether it was a man or a very pregnant woman, too young or too old,” Mirazón Lahr.

It’s not just the pregnant woman, several other victims were tied in a very particular position. Another telling fact is  is the fact that the victims weren’t buried at all.

It’s not clear why the Nataruk massacre took place. It could have been an attempt to seize land or territories, an act of revenge, or simply a developing rivalry between two antagonistic groups.

“The Nataruk massacre may have resulted from an attempt to seize resources—territory, women, children, food stored in pots—whose value was similar to those of later food-producing agricultural societies, among whom violent attacks on settlements became part of life,” said Mirazon Lahr. “This would extend the history of the same underlying socio-economic conditions that characterize other instances of early warfare: a more settled, materially richer way of life.”

Marta Mirazón Lahr

However, their sad fate provides an opportunity for researchers to better understand how organized violence emerged and evolved in our species.

“These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers,” said lead researcher Marta Mirazón Lahr.

Regardless, this finding shows once again that the life of a hunter-gatherer was far from idyllic. Ancient foragers were not immune from the horrors of war.

Journal Reference: Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya.

hunter gatherer

Early human societies were egalitarian – male dominance emerges only with agriculture and more resources

Sexual equality might be the mark of a civilized society, but it’s definitely not a new thing. In fact, there’s much we can learn from our so-called primitive forefathers and foremothers, who likely lived in closely bonded communities where sexes shared equal influence and contributions, according to a study published by a team at  University College London. The researchers investigated modern hunter-gatherer communities, one in Congo and the other in the Philippines, then constructed a computer model. Their model showed when only one sex had influence over how the group migrated for food or who lived with whom, the close community crumbled and did not reflect what was actually happening in reality. The researchers believe sexual segregation and male dominance in most cultures appeared following the advent of agriculture, as more resources became available.

hunter gatherer


“There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged,” Mark Dyble, an anthropologist who led the study at University College London.

“Sexual equality is one of a important suite of changes to social organisation, including things like pair-bonding, our big, social brains, and language, that distinguishes humans,” he said. “It’s an important one that hasn’t really been highlighted before.”

While hunter-gatherers show a strong preference for living with closely kin, in practice however the groups they comprise are made of few closely related individuals. It’s a paradox, one that would later be explained by the British researchers. The researchers first gathered genealogical data from the two hunter-gatherer communities by assessing family relations and  migration patterns. They also performed hundreds of questionnaires with the hunter-gatherers themselves. Both groups – Agta and Mbendjele BaYaka hunter-gatherers- are made out of 20 members or so – which is just about the right size for mobility and group survival – and move from place to place every ten days, sharing game and any fruits gathered.

The researchers then built a model in which they simulated a similar camp, only one where males dominated decision making, as is typically the case of pastoral or horticultural societies. Under this assumption, there were much more related individuals inside the group then when men and women have an equal influence.

“When only men have influence over who they are living with, the core of any community is a dense network of closely related men with the spouses on the periphery,” said Dyble. “If men and women decide, you don’t get groups of four or five brothers living together.

According to the authors, in these sort of communities – which were basically the standard when our early human ancestors started roaming the land – sexual egalitarianism may have provided evolutionary advantages like closer cooperation between individuals and wider-ranging social networks, which aren’t restricted by kinship.

“It gives you a far more expansive social network with a wider choice of mates, so inbreeding would be less of an issue,” said Dyble. “And you come into contact with more people and you can share innovations, which is something that humans do par excellence.”

Only when more resources became available, did sexual inequality emerge according to their hypothesis published in Science. This may quite be the case, if we’re to judge from how these sort of people live. Women are involved both in collecting honey and hunting, albeit not as much as men, but at the end of the day, despite there’s a division of labor, the calories each sex brings to the table is fairly equal. In both groups, monogamy is the norm and men are active in childcare. Sounds like a happy family, a fashion that may have been sidelined by greed.

“Men can start to have several wives and they can have more children than women,” said Dyble. “It pays more for men to start accumulating resources and becomes favourable to form alliances with male kin.”\

via The Guardian

oldest human footprints

Oldest North American human footprints found

oldest human footprints

(c) Arturo Gonzalez

In a fantastic discovery, a team of archaeologists have dated a pair of footprints preserved in the mineral-rich sediment in the Chihuahuan Desert to find that these are 10,500 years old. These are the oldest human footprints discovered thus far in North America, predating any previous find by some 5,000 years. Moreover, the footprints mark for the oldest archaeological find in the region and help paint a broader picture of how early human culture might have been at the time.

Only two tracks were preserved, left and right. These were discovered about 300 kilometers from the Texas border, in 1961, during digs for a highway construction. Luckily these were well preserved and were taken to the local museum. The bad part is that the precise location where the footprints were excavated has been lost.  In 2006, a follow-up effort led by  Dr. Nicholas Felstead, a geoarchaeologist at Durham University, tried to locate the original site only to find an additional 11 tracks somewhere in the vicinity of the supposed original site. Apparently, these didn’t belong to the hunter-gatherer that roamed those lands some 10,500 years ago, nor were the tracks made during the same millennium for that matter as dating revealed that these were about 7,250 years old.

“Both sets of prints are ones that have been identified before and are the only reported footprints in the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin, but neither have previously been dated,” Felstead said in an interview.

An ancient ‘walk of fame’

Though these 11 tracks don't come from the original site of the oldest pair of footprints in North America, the  remains discovered  in a quarry in Cuantrocienegas still offer precious insights into the ancient culture that once called these lands home. (c) Prof. Silvia Gonzalez)

Though these 11 tracks don’t come from the original site of the oldest pair of footprints in North America, the remains discovered in a quarry in Cuantrocienegas still offer precious insights into the ancient culture that once called these lands home. (c) Prof. Silvia Gonzalez)

It’s the region’s favorable climate of some thousand of years ago that we have to thank for the preservation of these remarkable time capsules. The desert refuge known as Cuatro Ciénegas is marshy and filled with  carbonate-rich sediments. Although very rare, through some stroke of luck and exactly favorable conditions the tracks left in the muddy soil solidified and turned into rock (travertine). This sedimentary rock, well known to geologists, contains minute traces of uranium which decays in the element thorium at predictable rates. By measuring the uranium/thorium ratios, the researchers were able to estimate the age of the footprint pair. Their results showed that the pair of tracks discovered in 1961, now housed at Saltillo’s Museo del Desierto, were about 10,550 years old.

Previously, other footprints were discovered after being preserved in similar conditions throughout North America,  from Nicaragua to California. The oldest of these are still some thousands of years earlier than the Cuatro Ciénegas footprint pair or the other 11 tracks found in the vicinity for that matter. Concerning the 11 tracks, which are 7,200-year-old, the researchers also discovered traces of ancient pollen from trees like pecan and willow. This type of fauna suggests that the climate back then was much wetter and colder than it is today.

Leaving their mark

This is extremely valuable information, since archaeologists know very little about the humans that inhabited this region. Around the time the oldest North American tracks were made, a diverse group of nomadic hunter-gatherers that ranged from central Mexico to the Texas plains lived there known as the  Coahuiltecans. Although they were present in the region for thousand of years, remarkably enough these people left little vestiges to tell of their life there.  Previously, the   reported human fossil evidence in the area were coprolites — fossil  feces — found in a rockshelter dated to about 9,000 years ago. This means that officially, the footprint pair is now also the oldest archaeological evidence reported  from the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin.

The oldest human footprints discovered, however, belonged to a child and were made some 13,000 years ago in modern day Chile. The  findings were reported in a paper published in the journal Journal of Archaeological Science.

ZME readers, judging from the  photo, what shoe size do you think would have fitted the hunter-gather? My guess is an 8.