Behavior of the first North African humans

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Mohamed Sahnouni and colleagues describe the archaeology of El-Kherba, Algeria. Sahnouni:2013. This locality is a paleontological exposure associated with the nearby Ain Hanech site, and Sahnouni and colleagues have excavated an Oldowan archaeological assemblage with large mammals such as hippos, rhinos and horses.

Dated to 1.78 Ma, the El-Kherba cut marks and usewear traces represent the earliest North African evidence showing a clear causal link between Oldowan stone technology and processing of large animal carcasses for meat, broadening the geographic range of Plio-Pleistocene hominin subsistence activities to include the Mediterranean fringe. As was shown in the East African Plio-Pleistocene archaeofaunas, early hominins were foraging for large mammals in northern Africa by circa 1.8 Ma. The evidence from the modified bones at these sites indicates that early hominins were involved in evisceration, disarticulating and removing meat, and breaking bones of large mammals to extract marrow.

It’s a great site because it is the first to document human activity in North Africa. Australopithecines were present in Chad by 3.4 million years ago, and given their mobility and range it seems likely they would have been present to the north of the Sahara also. But none have ever yet been found. As it stands, humans were at Dmanisi by 1.78 million years ago and also in Java by that time. The extent of human migration outside of Africa makes it clear that the Mediterranean coast of Africa itself should have been well within their range.

And yet, stone tools are known from Ethiopia from 2.6 million years ago, and nearly as old in Kenya. Did the earliest stone toolmakers range beyond the Rift Valley? So far there’s no equivalently early evidence of tool manufacture in South Africa. And in North Africa, the earliest tool assemblage is at El-Kherba.

It would sure be useful to uncover evidence of A. boisei or related robust australopithecines in the Ain Hanech area. In East and South Africa, early Homo lived alongside late robust australopithecines, sharing the same landscape. No robust australopithecine has ever been found outside East or South Africa, while Homo erectus spread across the Old World tropics and into the temperate zone. What kept robust australopithecines, otherwise seemingly adaptable, out of Eurasia? If they truly never lived near the Mediterranean coast, we would probably conclude that they weren’t as tolerant of different habitats as we might have expected.

The cutmark evidence described in the paper is fairly clear and comparable to that known from East Africa well before this date. The cutmarks on animal bones, including hippopotamus, along with a “meat polish” on some of the stone flakes, indicate that ancient humans had access to animal carcasses very shortly after the animals’ death and were using stone flakes to process them. Again, basically like Oldowan evidence that has long been known from Olduvai Gorge and other sites. I would like to see a better comparison of where this assemblage fits compared to both large and small archaeological assemblages from Olduvai.

The question of whether and to what extent early humans hunted large mammals involves a long debate that wouldn’t fit well in this paper. Still, the evidence here adds to that literature. The ancient people who left these remains were relying upon large mammal acquisition within a broader hunted diet including smaller prey species. Together with sites from across Africa and Eurasia, this one shows that early humans maintained this diet pattern across a range of ecologies and geographies.