Man The Hunted: Primates, Predators & Human Evolution
By: Robert W. Sussman, Ph.D
Book Review By: Neil Schoenherr
You wouldn't know it by current world events, but humans actually evolved to be
peaceful, cooperative and social animals, not the predators modern mythology
would have us believe, says an anthropologist at Washington University in St.
Robert W. Sussman, Ph.D., professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, spoke
at a press briefing, "Early Humans on the Menu," during the American
Association for the Advancement of the Science's Annual Meeting.
In his latest book, "Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators and Human Evolution,"
Sussman goes against the prevailing view and argues that primates, including
early humans, evolved not as hunters but as prey of many predators, including
wild dogs and cats, hyenas, eagles and crocodiles.
Despite popular theories posed in research papers and popular literature, early
man was not an aggressive killer, Sussman argues.
He poses a new theory, based on the fossil record and living primate species,
that primates have been prey for millions of years, a fact that greatly influenced
the evolution of early man.
"Our intelligence, cooperation and many other features we have as modern
humans developed from our attempts to out-smart the predator," says Sussman.
Since the 1924 discovery of the first early humans, australopithecines, which
lived from seven million years ago to two million years ago, many scientists,
theorized that those early human ancestors were hunters and possessed a killer
The idea of "Man the Hunter" is the generally accepted paradigm of human
evolution, says Sussman, "It developed from a basic Judeo-Christian ideology of
man being inherently evil, aggressive and a natural killer. In fact, when you really
examine the fossil and living non-human primate evidence, that is just not the
case." Sussman's research is based on studying the fossil evidence dating back
nearly seven million years.
"Most theories on Man the Hunter fail to incorporate this key fossil evidence,"
Sussman says. "We wanted evidence, not just theory. We thoroughly examined
literature available on the skulls, bones, footprints and on environmental
evidence, both of our hominid ancestors and the predators that coexisted with
Since the process of human evolution is so long and varied, Sussman and his
co-author, Donna L. Hart, decided to focus their research on one specific
species, Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between five million and two
and a half million years ago and is one of the better known early human species.
Most paleontologists agree that Australopithecus afarensis is the common link
between fossils that came before and those that came after. It shares dental,
cranial and skeletal traits with both. It's also a very well represented species in
the fossil record.
"Australopithecus afarensis was probably quite strong, like a small ape,"
Sussman says. Adults ranged from around 3 to 5 feet and they weighed 60-100
pounds. They were basically smallish bipedal primates. Their teeth were
relatively small, very much like modern humans, and they were fruit and nut
But what Sussman and Hart discovered is that Australopithecus afarensis was
not dentally pre-adapted to eat meat. "It didn't have the sharp shearing blades
necessary to retain and cut such foods," Sussman says. "These early humans
simply couldn't eat meat. If they couldn't eat meat, why would they hunt?"
It was not possible for early humans to consume a large amount of meat until fire
was controlled and cooking was possible. Sussman points out that the first
tools didn't appear until two million years ago. And there wasn't good evidence
of fire until after 800,000 years ago.
"In fact, some archaeologists and paleontologists don't think we had a modern,
systematic method of hunting until as recently as 60,000 years ago," he says.
"Furthermore, Australopithecus afarensis was an edge species," adds Sussman.
"They could live in the trees and on the ground and could take advantage of both.
Primates that are edge species, even today, are basically prey species, not
predators." Sussman argues.
The predators living at the same time as Australopithecus afarensis were huge
and there were 10 times as many as today. There were hyenas as big as bears,
as well as saber-toothed cats and many other mega-sized carnivores, reptiles
Australopithecus afarensis didn't have tools, didn't have big teeth and was three
feet tall. He was using his brain, his agility and his social skills to get away from
"He wasn't hunting them," says Sussman. "He was avoiding them at all costs."
Approximately 6 percent to 10 percent of early humans were preyed upon
according to evidence that includes teeth marks on bones, talon marks on skulls
and holes in a fossil cranium into which sabertooth cat fangs fit, says Sussman.
The predation rate on savannah antelope and certain ground-living monkeys
today is around 6 percent to 10 percent as well.
Sussman and Hart provide evidence that many of our modern human traits,
including those of cooperation and socialization, developed as a result of being
a prey species and the early humans ability to out-smart the predators. These
traits did not result from trying to hunt for prey or kill our competitors, says
"One of the main defenses against predators by animals without physical
defenses is living in groups," says Sussman.
"In fact, all diurnal primates (those active during the day) live in permanent social
groups. Most ecologists agree that predation pressure is one of the major
adaptive reasons for this group-living.
In this way there are more eyes and ears to locate the predators and more
individuals to mob them if attacked or to confuse them by scattering.
There are a number of reasons that living in groups is beneficial for animals that
otherwise would be very prone to being preyed upon."
Book Review By: Neil Schoenherr