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“Tracking the Carbon Footprint of Paleolithic Societies in Mediterranean Ecosystems”

by on November 7, 2011

One of the facts stated by Stiner and Kuhn that I found interesting was the idea that “Recent humans are the only predators who frequently target the reproductive core (prime adults) of ungulate populations.”  It goes to show that even if humans hunt the same amount of animals as another predator, they can still have a larger impact on the future species populations.  The authors continue with the idea that when a preferred resource is overexploited, a diversity in diet results as the population must find other sources of food to survive.  The authors then explain that although humans preferred larger game, they also relied on small prey throughout the Mediterranean during the Paleolithic with great variability.  Slow-growing prey (i.e. tortoises) were often eaten without damaging the prey’s population, suggesting that human population was small and dispersed.  Technologies of Paleolithic hunter are discussed and it is noted that people hunted large game before stone or bone tools were around, giving rise to the assumption that they must have used wooden spears.  Change in technologies is partially attributed to the need for increased efficiency in hunting, especially in dealing with small, quick prey (birds, fish, etc.).  Rises in human population correlate with material culture.  Stiner and Kuhn note that the great period of little change throughout the Middle Paleolithic are not indicative of a lack of human intelligence, but rather of the “success and stability of the adaptation”.

The last section of the paper talks about resilience, a topic we have been going over in class recently.  Here the authors touch of the flexibility of human populations throughout the Middle and Late Paleolithic.  The authors’ use of resilience is largely associated with reproduction and populations, though it seems only suggestive and is open to discussion.  I think that the article was in line with Holling’s use of the term as human populations’ resilience led to changes in equilibrium.

Do these authors seem to follow a certain theory on resilience?  Do they seem influenced by any other authors we have read in class?

How do you think people were able to hunt large game with very little in the way of technology?

Why do humans focus on hunting animals in their “reproductive prime”, and why don’t other predators?


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  1. Megan Powell permalink

    Until reading this article and blogpost I hadn’t really considered the application of the concept of resilience to humans. So far in class we’ve only talked about it in relation to ecosystems, how they can be or fail to be resilient and most recently, the cycles they tend to go through with regards to significant changes. My first thought about the application of resilience to human populations is that we are arguably one of the most resilient species because of the scale of adaptations we’ve achieved. On the other hand, one might argue that it is yet to be seen how truly resilient humans are as a species due to the fact that we’ve only been around for such a relatively short period of time. When I think of resilience in terms of humans, the definition I think of is closer to Holling’s definition; basically, how much change or disturbance can we absorb or withstand without becoming extinct.

  2. vcowdrey permalink

    As far as your second question, humans are smart, and in most cases can outsmart their prey. The ability of the human brain to think strategically is what set them apart from their prey, along with their ability to hunt in groups and devise ways of trapping game. Granted, large mammals (canines and felines) also hunted in packs, however, they lacked technology and the ability to use it.

    With regard to your third question I strongly feel that (recent) humans prey on animals in their ‘reproductive prime’ because that is also the time when the animals are healthiest and fittest (in most cases), therefore, providing the most nutrient rich meat. Humans steered away from preying on sick or young animals because we had the option to choose. Unlike humans, cat and dog species that hunted prey usually relied on an “encounter basis” or preying on the weak (112) in order to survive. However, preying solely on animals in their reproductive prime means less animals reproducing, which results in population loss of the prey. Maybe eating those who are older isn’t such a bad thing if it means keeping populations in check?

  3. This article took an interesting approach to how humans developed and adapted over time in the Mediterranean. With the demographics of population size, the authors claim that hunter/gatherer societies were more resilient to the ecological changes because they were far less of an impact on the environment due to their small populations. With the example of how people were able to not over exploit slow growing prey made me question whether or not these authors had accounted for the amount of land these small groups were utilizing. What i have learned thus far about hunter/gatherer communities is that they were constantly hunting and on the lookout for food because of their increased mobility and higher demand of nutrients to supply them energy. Through this constant means of survival, couldn’t the advancement in technology of tool making become more complex through trail and error and develop better a better use of tools based off of what they learn works best for their needs? Being resilient or “robust” to the ecosystems around them may not be the only factor as to why human populations and tool technologies were becoming more impressive.

    • Reading that humans were hunting before the creation of stone tools is news to me. I had been taught that stone tools preceded hunting and spear making by eons. I found this perspective to be interesting but I don’t know if I buy it….. It is interesting, however, that hunting and gathering is the most resilient subsistence model, because it has a lesser impact on the environment. When cultivation and domestication was stumbled upon by humans they were able to sustain larger populations and progress exponentially. They started to create new technologies that eventually lead us to where we are today. The Paleolithic, on the other hand, was very slow as producing new technologies. This is my bias of course, and it’s interesting to not the authors.

  4. Kelsey, I think that this article applies the common theme discussed frequently throughout the course of this class, culture-nature relationship, by acknowledging the first point in history where human societies negatively impacted the environment. Although Stiner and Kuhn attribute this point to be in the Upper Paleolithic, the tone used to express the Middle Paleolithic, which is broadly characterized as the success of “stability of the adaption,” was very negative.
    In Stiner and Kuhn’s article, Tracking the Carbon Footprint of Paleolithic Societies in Mediterranean Ecosystems, they illustrate the culture-nature relationship in a very negative tone. They structure their argument to emphasize that humans have “impacted” nature, even in a relatively early period where “human foragers ‘affected’ the relative abundance of prey species and biotic community composition more generally”(1). Their argument is supported though direct and indirect evidence supporting the fundamental changes that occurred in ecology, as a result from early humans and human ancestors in Eurasia.
    Throughout the article, the human-culture relationship is framed to represent definite evidence supporting humans negative impact on their environment. They illustrate this through humans exploiting various natural resources to ensure survival. An example is provided though the harsh climate challenges in Eurasia; “Colonizing populations of Homo could only have survived northern Eurasian winters by exploiting large mammals” (3). Notice how they use the word exploit, which it typically associated with a negative connotation and implies that the resource was used unfairly.
    Stiner and Kuhn also demonstrate the how humans human hunting pressure negatively impacted their environment stating, “13,000 years ago, that human hunting pressure on some ungulate populations led to unsustainable distortions in prey population structures…”(4). Stiner and Kuhn also assert the predator-prey relationship to be dynamic, as the human diet tends to consist of both plant and animal foods, placing less stress on the environment. This statement is also very interesting, as they attribute dietary diversification to excessive human hunting pressures, which causes the distortions, leading to a decline in the preferred resources. Although these behaviors are considered only minor during this Middle Pleistocene period, it is still clear though the tone that the nature-culture relationship is seen in a negative light.
    This negative tone is further demonstrated through the analysis of the Upper Paleolithic period that followed, attributing noticeable environmental impacts to the existing social entities through examining demographic factors; “human impacts on community structure and prey populations first become detectible only after about 50–40,000 years ago, with the onset of the Upper Paleolithic”(13).

  5. 242colleencarey permalink

    These authors are definitely follow Hollings’ theory on resilience. The authors are looking at how people in the Paleolithic hunted, adapted, hunted again, the change in tools, the ways they needed to hunt in regards to the prey available. This isn’t people returning to a certain way all the time, they are changing and returning to an equilibrium, but not the same equilibrium. The authors seem to be implying a flexible human nature that is able to evolve and adapt over time.
    I don’t only think people were able to hunt large prey with little technology, we know from proof of diverse and large amounts of tools that have been recovered by archaeologists and exist within the archaeological record. In the article is stated that quick prey like birds, rabbits and fish needed to be caught in order to survive. I agree that hunting technologies had to change in order to be successful at catching these animals; this is an example of how humans adapted, existed, and thrived.
    I’m not sure why, but I think human hunt animals that are in their “reproductive prime” because it eliminates competition for existence. This is an interesting fact because humans also need these animals to survive.

  6. I thought this was a very interesting article because my anthropological focus is in archaeology and the Paleolithic has many interesting technological advances. In your second question you ask how people managed to hunt such large game and I agree with one of the responders above. People hunt in large groups in order to confuse their prey, much like a pack of wolves. This enables them to attack it from different angles which will eventually bring the animal down, no matter how small or seemingly primitive their tools are.
    In your second question you ask about the purpose behind hunting an animal in its ‘reproductive prime’ and I think this is most likely because those animals are not only the biggest, but the healthiest and have the most muscle. The hunting of these animals can be time consuming so the caloric turn around must be greater than the exerted amount in order to initially catch their prey. When an animal is ready to reproduce, it most likely possess the traits, like body build, that are beneficial traits to the survival of the animal species. It just so happens that these traits make for a very tasty meal when it comes to predators.

  7. shanewyenn permalink

    Wow, this article was really interesting because it talks about how humans have impacted the landscape starting from the very beginning of our existence. I’ve been so stuck on how much damage we’ve (the ‘developed’ world) done in the past 100 years or so and completely forgot that humans have been interacting with the environment for much much longer than that, crazy. In response to your first question though Kelsey, I agree with you that this article is following Holling’s definition of resilience because it talks about how ecosystems experienced a shift in equilibrium as the result of human interaction and are no longer recognizable of what they used to be, changes in the mixed oak woodlands in the Mediterranean basin being a perfect example.
    Ahhh 9:30!

  8. To answer the third question, I believe humans hunt animals in their reproductive prime because that is the time when they are most developed and would have the largest amount of healthy meat to feed upon. Other animals are less picky about when they hunt because they lack the ability to save the leftovers and therefore are hunting on a more urgent basis. Furthermore, humans need to be a little but more picky about the meat they consume because our immune systems are not as strong against bacteria and parasites that may come into play as animals age or get sick.

  9. As far as your second questions goes, in the Upper Paleolithic, the Acheulean tool industry existed. it was a pretty complex tool system for the time and consisted of stone tools like a hand axe and atlatls which allowed individuals to throw spears very long distances in order to take down large game.

  10. Also in response to your third question, I think the need to hunt coincides with influx of human populations and their higher need for caloric intake than other creatures.

  11. Sean Butler permalink

    The authors seem to look more towards Holling’s definition of resilience because they discuss species as being able to adapt to change and find equilibrium through different means. Hunting large game was likely done in large groups, similar to how lions and wolves attack larger animals, using what few tools were available. I think it is interesting how we applied resilience to humans instead of plant or animal populations. This would lead me to believe that humans are extremely resilient. I suppose the reason other animals don’t focus on the reproductive core (prime adults) is because humans have developed technology to obtain the preferred resource and other animals have to prey on weaker selections (young or injured)

  12. amygraceaustin permalink

    I would like to piggyback off of Shane’s comment about how interesting it is to study the damaging effects of early humans on the environment in the context of modern ecological destruction. I’ve been learning in my Physical Anthropology class about the mass extinction that occurred at the end of the Pleistocene era because human hunting became so effective. This is why we don’t see megafauna like sabertooth tigers, woolly mammoths and Irish elk in existence today. It is true that anthropogenic destruction of the environment occurs today on massive scales, but the fact is, modern humans are not the first to do so. However, this certainly cannot be a reason to avoid doing what we can to live more in harmony with the physical realm.

    In response to the second question, which Megan briefly touched on, I would like to contribute some interesting facts about tool making during the Upper Paleolithic era (the period discussed in the article).

    The Upper Paleolithic era is characterized by blade tool technology. The archaic humans of this era learned how to strike a rock at a certain angle to produce a large flake. They then used soft materials to shape that flake into a long blade which they then sharpened and used on spears. This technology began to replace the need for large teeth and contributed to the evolution of the modern human face.

    This article is really interesting to me because it combines what I’m learning in Physical Anthropology with the discussions we’ve been having in this class. I am most interested in cultural anthropology and I think it’s really cool that this article showed me how important understanding evolution and additional aspects of physical anthropology is in relation to my study of modern populations. It’s neat being able to understand this article because of what I’m learning in another class and to see that information being useful. Yay school! This stuff actually does matter.

  13. Benjamin N. permalink

    People were able to hunt large game with limited technology because of the way that animals are built. Humans are built to perspire. This allows us the convenience of constant movement – we can walk and run for hours, and sprint when we need to. The natural lives of paleolithic man made them very conditioned to do just that. Other animals, on the other hand, need to stop and pant, as they cannot sweat. Because of this, if humans are patient, they can track an animal for hours on foot (persistence hunting), until the animal is exhausted and cannot run anymore. At this point, the hunters can gang up on it and make the kill. Paleolithic man also used what limited technology he had to his advantage. Weapons like the atlatl, while simple, gave early humans the capability to make an attack from far away, even to potentially bleed out an animal. So, in essence, perseverance, teamwork, and appropriate weapon usage allowed early humans to become skilled predators.

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