Forest monkey hunters of Late Pleistocene Sri Lanka

3 minute read

Fascinating: “Ancient humans hunted monkeys for tens of thousands of years”.

If you picture early humans dining, you likely imagine them sitting down to a barbecue of mammoth, aurochs, and giant elk meat. But in the rainforests of Sri Lanka, where our ancestors ventured about 45,000 years ago, people hunted more modest fare, primarily monkeys and tree squirrels. Then they turned the bones of these animals into projectiles to hunt more of them. The practice continued for tens of thousands of years, making this the longest known record of humans hunting other primates, archaeologists report today.

That quote comes from the news story by Virginia Morell. The research is by Oshan Wedage and colleagues (it’s shameful that Science didn’t include the first author’s name in their news coverage). The paper is published in Nature Communications: “Specialized rainforest hunting by Homo sapiens ~45,000 years ago”.

This team, including Patrick Roberts, has been very interested in ancient cultural adaptations of people to tropical forest environments. The paper is based on analysis of materials from a cave site called Fa-Hien Lena.

This is not the first or oldest site to present evidence of forest hunters targeting primates and other small mammals. As the paper indicates, the site of Niah Caves, Borneo, also has such evidence. But the Fa-Hien Lena assemblage provides a good indication of the parallel cultural development of such practices in tropical forest environments, which are also shared by many living hunting and gathering peoples around the world.

The bone points made from monkey fibulae are amazing:

Monkey fibula bone points from Fa-Hien Lena cave site, Sri Lanka

I gotta tell you, while there are some cool things in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe, the records of technical innovation in other parts of the world are in most cases more interesting and earlier. Archaeologists are now bringing these other areas of the world more into their thinking about the history of human adaptations, and that’s a very good thing.

The paper emphasizes the continuity of the hunting practices over a long period of time, from the earliest evidence at the site up to 48,000 years ago up into the mid-Holocene. There are a substantial number of bone tools or bone objects inferred to be ornaments in the oldest layers of the site, and the entire bone assemblage is highly fragmented and subjected to grinding in ways that suggest that bone tool production was a common activity.

I would love to have a more highly-resolved record that might reveal changes over time, whether cultural (for example, stylistic changes in ornaments) or subsistence-related. That being said, the long persistence of similar hunting strategies and technical processes documented at Fa-Hien Lena may be similar to what we are seeing in some other parts of the world. For example, a 40,000-year-long practice of hunting small forest game approaches in duration the long evidence for poison arrow hunting in southern Africa. Fairly detailed technical strategies were evidently quite stable in some ancient cultural contexts.

The Late Pleistocene layers at Fa-Hien Lena also include skeletal remains of ancient humans that were described by Ken Kennedy in his book about the evolutionary history of humans in South Asia, God Apes and Fossil Men. This paper doesn’t provide any new information about these specimens but does place them into its chronological context.

Previous excavation in Fa-Hien-lena produced the oldest human fossils so far in Sri Lanka. Remains of a 5.5–6.5 years old child, mixed with remains of at least two infants as well as a young adult female, were dated based on associated charcoal to 30,600 + 360 BP. These remains were found in layer 4 at the rear of the cave during the 1986 excavations (approximately represented by context 179 during our 2010 excavations) (Fig. 2). Overall, our new data confirm Fa-Hien Lena as the oldest site with H. sapiens fossils in Sri Lanka, and wider South Asia. They also indicate that Fa-Hien Lena now represents one of the earliest appearances of microlith toolkits and bone tool technocomplexes outside of Africa.

I think it’s a good question whether living and hunting in forests may have pre-adapted people toward development of projectile technology. It is possible for humans to get within several meters of small arboreal mammals in trees, and darts, arrows, or small thrown spears can be highly effective in this situation. Humans have converged on similar hunting strategies in forests around the world.