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Scientists just figured out how long humans were apex predators

Published Apr 6th, 2021 12:30AM EDT
human predators
Image: SciePro/Adobe

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You probably don’t feel like it when you dribble some raspberry filling from your jelly donut onto your shirt on a Monday morning, but you could be an apex predator. Well, maybe not you specifically, but humans have dominated the food chain for some time. We didn’t get here because we’re bigger or stronger than every other animal on the planet — in fact, there are a lot of animals that could dispatch us without a second thought if they really wanted to — but because we’re smarter. The question that scientists want to answer is when did we achieve top predator status, and how did that happen.

A new research paper by scientists at Tel Aviv University attempts to answer that burning question, looking back over the history of humanity and painting a picture of humanity’s rise to the top. They were able to do this by crunching a massive amount of data gathered over decades of research and roughly 400 different scientific papers, eventually reaching a conclusion that humans were apex predators for approximately 2 million years.

It’s important to note here that humans aren’t considered apex predators right now. We’re farmers, and our diets are packed with lots of things other than meat. Are we capable of being apex predators? Absolutely, but because of how we live right now, we don’t fit the definition all that well.

However, up until between 40,000 and 90,000 years ago, humans were indeed apex predators. Our ancestors hunted a lot and they were very good at it, reliably downing game animals and feasting on them, allowing untold generations of ancient humans to prosper. Exactly when that started is the subject of this latest round of research published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and it’s quite interesting.

The scientists used a LOT of data to come to their conclusions, but one of the best sources of information came in the form of genetic changes. The researchers were able to track the changes in our genes over hundreds of thousands of years and, paired with archaeological evidence, like types of tools that were being used by humans during different time periods. This led them to conclude that humans were pushed toward a more varied diet within the last 100,00 years in Africa and within the last 50,000 years in Europe and Asia. Before that, they would have eaten mostly meat that was hunted.

Looking back even further in history, evidence of human hunting activities stretches to roughly 2 million years. For up to a half-million years before that, humans were hunting and gathering but not nearly as good at either as they would eventually become. Of course, once humans hunted large game species for two million years, they started to run out, and farming was the only logical next step.