Humans colonized the South Asian rainforest by hunting primates

Exterior view of the entrance to Fa-Hien Lena cave in Sri Lanka. Credit: O. Wedage

A multidisciplinary study has highlighted evidence allowing humans to hunt small mammals in Sri Lankan forests at least 45,000 years ago. The researchers found remains of small mammals, including primates, showing traces of cuts and burns on Sri Lanka's oldest human-occupied archaeological site, alongside sophisticated bone and stone tools . Hunting these animals is an example of the unique human adaptability that allowed H. sapiens to quickly colonize a series of extreme environments apparently spared by his hominins.

In a new article published in Nature CommunicationsAn international team of scientists has revealed new evidence of the unique adaptability of Homo sapiens. The study, led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, alongside Sri Lankan colleagues and other international institutions, shows that human populations have could specialize in hunting small arboreal animals for tens of thousands of years. This is the longest and oldest record of sophisticated and active hunting for primates by foragers. This work also highlights the distinctive ecological abilities of H. sapiens in relation to his hominin ancestors and his parents.

Tropical rainforests: a unique challenge

Recent research has shown that our species adapts to a variety of extreme environments as humans migrate into deserts, high altitude areas, palaeoarctic conditions and tropical forests. Previously, however, discussions about the migration of our species in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have often focused on improving the efficiency of hunting, cutting and consumption of medium to large game. in open savannah environments. Alternatively, coastal areas have been considered as important sources of protein, stimulating human evolution and migration.

Tropical rainforests have been somewhat neglected in discussions of human migration and dispersal. According to public and academic opinion, these environments are often seen as isolated barriers to human movement, with diseases, dangerous animals and limited resources, all of which are challenges. In particular, compared to large open-savanna animals, small forest-dwelling monkeys and squirrels are difficult to capture and provide smaller amounts of protein.

Small mammals and the complexity of hunting

The purchase of small mammals has long been considered a feature of technological and behavioral complexity, or "modernity", peculiar to our species. Previous research in Europe and Western Asia has linked the increased capture and consumption of small, agile mammals, both human population growth and climate-induced crises. Traditionally, these phenomena have been considered particularly extreme around 20,000 years ago.

However, the beginning and behavioral context of small mammal hunting in other parts of the world, particularly in Asia, have remained poorly studied. This is especially the case outside temperate environments. "Over the last two decades, research has highlighted the human occupation of tropical rainforests in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Melanesia at least 45,000 years ago, the potential for human dependence on small mammals in these environments 20,000 years ago seems likely, "said lead co-author, Dr. Patrick Roberts, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

A Sri Lankan specialty

Sri Lanka has been a prominent topic in discussions of early human adaptations to tropical rainforests, although there has been a general lack of systematic and detailed analysis of remnants of human life. Animals associated with the archaeological sites of the island. For the present study, the researchers produced new chronological information, an analysis of animal remains and assemblages of lithic and bone tools from the Fa-Hien Lena cave, site of the oldest traces of fossils and archeology of H. sapiens in Sri Lanka.

"The results demonstrate a specialized and sophisticated hunting of semi-arboreal and arboreal monkey and squirrel populations from 45,000 years ago in a tropical rainforest environment," says Oshan Wedage, lead author of the study, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. . Dr. Noel Amano, co-author of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, adds: "This has been complemented by sophisticated bone tool technologies, which have been created from the bones of hunted monkeys ".

Accurate adaptations, not a monkey business

Together, the results of this new work show a particular interest in hunting monkeys and other small mammals hunting more than 45,000 years. A sustained focus on adult monkeys throughout this period suggests that this strategy has remained viable over this long period and that tropical rainforests are not over-taxed by human presence and practices.

"This" monkey menu "was not unique and the use of these hard-to-catch resources is another example of H. sapiens' behavioral and technological flexibility," says Max Planck Professor Michael Petraglia. Institute for the Science of Human History, a senior author of the study. A more detailed analysis of the tools and remains of animals left by the first members of our species should allow to better understand the diversity of strategies allowing H. sapiens to colonize the continents and to leave us the last hominism standing.

Explore further:
Humans colonized various environments in Southeast Asia and Oceania during the Pleistocene

More information:
Oshan Wedage et al. Homo sapiens hunting at the rainforest specialized about 45,000 years ago, Nature Communications (2019). DOI: 10.1038 / s41467-019-08623-1

Journal reference:
Nature Communications

Provided by:
Max Planck Society

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