Savanna hunting/scavenging

Newington Reference Library (
Thu, 05 Dec 1996 15:43:36 +0000

Savanna hunting/scavenging

By Andrew Lewis

Did hominids hunt on the savanna or did they scavenge?

It is difficult to explain how hominids would be able to compete with
hunters and scavengers on the savanna. There are 4 points that I would
like to make on this issue:

1. Hunters possibly started as scavengers.
2. Savanna hunters possibly started as forest hunters.
3. Hominids may have exploited carnivores.
4. Hominids may have only ventured onto the savanna at a time of year
most advantageous for them.

If I may expand on these 4 points:

1. It is very likely that most animals that evolve hunting follow a
particular pattern:
a. Occasional opportunistic scavenging in addition to other food sources.
Very occasionally an animal that is not normally a scavenger will come
upon a corpse and will eat it. This would most likely be an animal that
died perhaps in dense cover and was missed by the usual
scavengers/hunters. The Giant Panda is known to do this.
b. Opportunistic scavenging in addition to other food sources.
c. Organised scavenging.
d. Dispatching immobilised animals (very old animals, ones with broken
limbs etc.).
e. Identifying and following weak animals and dispatching them.
f. Full fledged hunting.

All hunters select the weakest animals for attention. All hunters will
take prey away from another hunter/scavenger if they feel confident
enough and hominids might have been good at this in a group. Most hunters
scavenge and most scavengers hunt.

2. Chimps hunt and forest chimps hunt more than savanna chimps. Hominids
probably started in the same way.

3. I think that it was in a book by Laurens Van der Post that I read that
San (Bushman) hunters would follow a solitary male lion and when it
killed they would let it feed for a while but then move in to take the
meat. It occurs to me that this form of €hunting€ must be considered in
addition to the usual idea of hunting and scavenging as a possible
strategy by hominids.

The cheetah would have been a ideal candidate for this tactic. Their
size and the fact that they are solitary makes them less intimidating
than most predators, and they have a big problem with other carnivores
taking away their kills. Imagine a dozen male hominids following a
cheetah from a distance single file. When it makes a kill they move
closer. After it has fed for a while or if hunters/scavengers move in
they take what remains of the dead animal.

3. My theory of hominid evolution, the Multi Habitat Theory, suggests
that hominids only ventured onto the savanna when food was most abundant.

Many savanna animals that are prey to others develop the strategy of
giving birth all at roughly the same time. This has the advantage of
keeping predators hungry for most of the year (keeping numbers low) while
providing a glut at one time of the year which the predator is unable to
fully utilise (so fewer young are taken). Wildebeest and Thompson€s
Gazelles are an example of this. Termites and ants have a similar
strategy when they produce all their winged forms at the same time, and
similarly birds with eggs.

When female antelopes develop larger and larger foetuses they become
slower and easier to catch. Also, when the young are born, they are easy
to catch. This is something that our ancestors could have taken advantage
of, moving in when the pickings are easiest. This is what I mean by
exploiting the seasonal abundance of different environments.

Noel Mostert in his book €Frontiers€ writes about the San hunters and

€there were many overlapping lifestyles in southern Africa. Those on the
west coast, for example, might summer in the foothills of the inland
mountains, well watered country with an abundance of game, and in the
winter move to the coast for a period, to subsist mainly off shellfish.€

If hominids used any of the 4 above strategies, either singly or in
combination, it could help to explain how
they could have survived on the savanna in competition with lions and
hyaenas, and other primates such as baboons.

Don€t accuse me of inventing €Just So€ stories because I am not
presenting my ideas as the truth but something for discussion. Scientists
often speculate and after discussion suggestions arise as to how an idea
can be proved or disproved. A €Just So€ story is something that is
obviously untrue. If you think what I have said is obviously untrue then
please tell me why you think this. The biggest €Just So€ story ever is
the Savanna Theory, which is now untenable. I am merely suggesting a