BERLIN – A new study published on Tuesday revealed that early humans hunted tree-dwelling monkeys and other small mammals in South Asia’s tropical rainforests at least 45,000 years ago, a find that constitutes another example of Homo sapiens’ unique ability to adapt to and colonize extreme environments.
A team of researchers from the multidisciplinary Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History based in Jena, eastern Germany, discovered remains from small animals – including primates – inside a cave in Sri Lanka’s lush jungle that showed cutting and burning marks alongside sophisticated tools made of stone and bones.
“The results demonstrate specialized, sophisticated hunting of semi-arboreal and arboreal monkey and squirrel populations from 45,000 years ago in a tropical rainforest environment,” said the paper’s lead author, Oshan Wedage.
“This was complemented by sophisticated bone tool technologies which were, in turn, created from the bones of hunted monkeys,” added co-author Noel Amano.
The hunting of these types of prey constitutes evidence that Homo sapiens was uniquely suited to colonize harsh environments that other hominids apparently left untouched.
The cache found in Sri Lanka’s Fa-Hien cave is the oldest and longest record of human foragers’ sophisticated and active method for hunting primates.
Tropical rainforests presented several challenges to would-be colonizers, including diseases, dangerous or poisonous animals and a limited supply of protein, as these ecosystems possessed much smaller mammals compared to the large animals that then roamed the open savannas of Eurasia.
In addition, small and agile creatures such as monkeys or squirrels are much harder and more inefficient to catch or kill than larger, clumsier mammals.
According to the authors of the paper, which was published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, the findings demonstrate a highly-tuned and sustained focus on hunting adult monkeys and squirrels over a long period, which suggests that it was a successful strategy for humans, who apparently did not overtax the rainforest with their presence and hunting practices.
“This ‘monkey menu’ was not a one-off, and the use of these difficult-to-catch resources is one more example of the behavioral and technological flexibility of Homo sapiens,” explained Michael Petraglia, one of the study’s senior authors.