Touchdown! Touchstone…er…Tuesday is Back: Sherwood Washburn’s ‘Australopithecines: the hunters or the hunted?’

For some time now I’ve been neglecting your higher education–can anyone remember the last Touchstone Thursday? Me, neither. Given the time elapsed since the last offering, I think it’s ok if I’m a couple of days early. 
     After the flurry of questionable archaeological inferences I’ve dealt with lately, I was keen to present a work that epitomized the SA Dictum–always rule out natural processes before imputing your observations to bipedal apes. I was all set to champion C. K. ‘Bob’ Brain [again] for today’s flashback. His work on the geology of Swartkrans Cave and his early actualistic studies of butchery among the San people of southern Africa are a perennial topic of undergraduate archaeology and physical anthropology classes because they put to rest Raymond Dart’s hypothesis of Plio-Pleistocene australopithecines making and using bone, tooth, and horn tools–the so-called Osteodontokeratic Culture–in a convincing and elegant manner. 

The ‘Brain’ scenario for the punctured australopithecine skulls at Swartkrans (Source)

Thus, today’s touchstone was to have been Brain’s 1967 paper ‘Bone weathering and the problem of pseudo-bone tools’ (South African Journal of Science 63:97-99). HOWEVER, I happened upon the above-linked Wikipedia article on Dart’s hypothesis, and discovered something I’d either long-since forgotten or was never actually aware of. Brain’s work was motivated in large part by Sherwood L. ‘Sherry’ Washburn’s 1957 ‘Australopithecines: the hunters or the hunted? (American Anthropologist 59:612–614). In fact, Brain’s (1981) major work–Hunters or the Hunted?: An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy (University of Chicago Press: Chicago & London)–was obviously titled in that way to pay homage to Washburn’s inspiration.
     So, on the basis of my latest ‘live and learn’ experience, I thought I’d put Sherwood Washburn up as this week’s touchstone. It’s short–just three pages–and pithy, as I think you’ll agree. [Quelle surprise! It’s behind a pay wall! Poke me if you’re desperate to read it and don’t have access through your institution.]
     Washburn begins by acknowledging the ‘high frequency of jaws, skulls, and upper cervical vertebrae in the australopithecine deposits.’ This is precisely what had led Dart to think that something odd was happening in the caverns he was excavating. Washburn, in contrast, notes that ‘[it] is not necessarily evidence for hunting, head hunting, or human activities, but may be due to selective eating by carnivores.’ He continues

…it is clear from the description of the brown hyena den that normal eating and collection of bones by living carnivores produces accumulations which are peculiar, both in regard to the species of animals represented and the distribution of bones. A high frequency of skulls, jaws, and cervical vertebrae is the result of normal eating habits of carnivores. The brown hyenas in Kruger Park collected the heads of medium sized antelopes, baboons, and a few carnivores. This is the kind and distribution of bones found in the australopithecine deposits.’

Thus, on the basis of Washburn’s intuition and an ad hoc survey of 35 animal carcasses he observed while looking for baboons to anthropologize, he was able to posit a plausible and parsimonious alternative explanation for the traces that Dart thought must have been the result of australopithecine hunting. If Bob Brain can be considered the English-speaking founder of the study of taphonomy, Washburn must therefore have been the Muse.

Spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta), adapted to eating bone, and bone collector extraordinaire (Source)

     In the end, Washburn focusses on hyaenas as one of the more prolific bone collectors, and notes that depending on the carcass size of any given species, a different pattern of skeletal parts will find its way into a hyaena den.

It should be stressed that a variety of animals may have been involved, and there is no reason that any particular animal should have been responsible for all the deposits. However, it seems to have been generally assumed that hyenas were the most likely candidates, but Hughes … and Dart … have questioned whether hyenas do in fact accumulate bones. I saw a spotted hyena carrying off the head of a medium sized antelope, and Colonel Stevenson-Hamilton, who was Warden of Kruger National Park for many years, gives an excellent account of a brown hyena den. ‘The vicinity was littered with bones. …The heads of fourteen full-grown impala rams, all quite recently killed, the skulls of several baboons, and of two chitas (one of them a full-grown animal) remains of guinea fowls, and a large tree snake (“boomslang”) partly chewed, were among the exhibits’ … . This is the same den described by Maberly … in his excellent guide to the ‘Animals of Kruger National Park.’

The brown hyaena (Hyaena brunnea, formerly Parahyaena brunnea), another prodigious bone transport agent and accumulator (Source)

Returning, finally, to the Swartkrans deposits, Washburn summarizes by saying, ‘Combined with the fact that hyena coprolites have been found in the deposits, this makes it probable that the australopithecines were themselves the game, rather than the hunters.’

Refreshingly brief, concise, insightful, with a hint of tropical fruit on the finish. Bon apetit!

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