A lion with a zebra carcass. There's still plenty of meat on those ribs for a hungry hominin.
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Photo by kayugee, CC BY-ND 2.0.
A lion with a zebra carcass. There's still plenty of meat on those ribs for a hungry hominin.

How to Pick up Pliocene Takeout

[Note: This post was originally published on January 7th, 2 million years before present.]

I’m sure you know the feeling. You’ve been digging up roots and tubers for days and they’re just not hitting the spot. Something more savory would be delightful, but, like they do, lions take their share of their kills, leaving what looks like just scraps for you and your family. Well don’t despair, my hominin friend. If you know what to look for, you can turn even a practially-skeletonized carcass into a feast.

The first step is picking the right place to dine. An open grassland just won’t do. There’s no place to hide out in the open, and nothing ruins a meal like an uninvited leopard showing up to dinner. And you’ll want to avoid the haunts of bone-crunching hyenas, too. Aside from the fact that you don’t want to wind up as an appetizer for them, they usually don’t leave much behind beyond scattered, splintered bones. What use is a bone-shard toothpick if you’ve nothing to pick out of your teeth?

You’ll want to look for a large carcass in a more closed habitat. Someplace wooded and a little more shady. This is where sabercats prowl, and, when spotting leftovers, big cats are practically your sous chefs.

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Sigh. Goodbye, lunch. Photo by Mariomassone, CC BY-SA 2.0.

You can pinpoint a promising carcass by the way it looks.

Hyenas disarticulate and scatter skeletons, often carrying off the heavily-muscled limbs to consume elsewhere. Not to mention that they strip almost every piece of meat from the bones in the process. A disorganized clump of bones probably won’t hold much for you. But big cats are more interested in the softest and most accessible cuts, usually starting with the hind legs and continuing on to the thorax, head, and forelimbs. The skeletons of their kills are usually left relatively intact, and, depending on the habits of the local cats, there’s usually a good deal of flesh left on the skeleton.

Don’t fret if you can only see bones at a distance. There’s still plenty of good eating on that carcass. If you’re lucky, you’ll find large pieces of flesh still attached to spots like the skull, legs, and ribs. Those are easy enough to slice off with a handy stone tool – never leave home with out some cutlery in hand – but you’re more likely to find some smaller morsels. Some hominins look down their noses and call these “scraps”, but that’s just negativity. If you can pinch a piece of horse or antelope flesh between your thumb and forefinger, that’s big enough to give you a juicy mouthful.

Consider this: even a horse leg with 10% of the original amount of meat left on it still yields 2-4 pounds of flesh. And if the same is true of the rest of the skeleton, well, you’re looking at between 2,000 and 6,000 calories of protein! Even the lower range is enough to fulfill the caloric needs of at least one of your clever Homo erectus for an entire day. And that’s not even considering the marrow held inside those bones!

Don’t believe those uber-macho hominins who say you need to run leopards and hyenas off kills in order to enjoy a steak dinner. Natural selection will likely see them off sooner rather than later. If you’re patient and don’t mind a little cat saliva, you can have a meaty “cheat day” meal to mix up the routine of tubers and water plants.

This post is based on a new Journal of Human Evolution papera new Journal of Human Evolution papera new Journal of Human Evolution paper by National Museum of Natural History anthropologist Briana Pobiner. Read her paper for fully fleshed-out details of how she determined how much meat some lions leave behind and what this means for the menu of our Plio-Pleistocene forebears. Top photo from here.


Pobiner, B. 2015. New actualistic data on the ecology and energetics of hominin scavenging opportunities. Journal of Human Evolution. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2014.06.020