The Evolution of Hominin Diets

Part of the series Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology pp 157-169

Paleolithic Diet and the Division of Labor in Mediterranean Eurasia

  • Mary C. StinerAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, University of Arizona Tucson
  • , Steven L. KuhnAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, University of Arizona Tucson

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Hunter-gatherers of the recent era vary in many aspects of culture, yet they display great uniformity in their tendency to divide labor along the lines of gender and age. We argue on the basis of zooarchaeological, technological, and demographic evidence that the complementary economic roles of men and women so typical of ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers did not appear in Eurasia until the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. The rich archaeological record of Middle Paleolithic cultures in Eurasia suggests, by contrast, that earlier hominins (Neandertals, among others) pursued narrowly focused economies, with women's activities more closely aligned to those of men with respect to schedules and territory use patterns. Hoofed animals were the principal source of meat for virtually all Middle and Upper Paleolithic foragers, but Upper Paleolithic people supplemented diets to large game with a broader spectrum of small animals, leading to considerable expansion in dietary breadth. Parallel trends are apparent in the technological record. Evidence of skill-intensive, time-consuming craft work that normally supports the food quest among recent forager economies also emerged in the early Upper Paleolithic, including indications of dry hide scraping based on lithic micro-wear evidence and widespread use of bone tools suitable for working hide, plant fibers or both. The comparatively narrow reliance on large game animals during the Middle Paleolithic for meat would have constrained the demographic potential of these endemic populations. More broadly based economies, as indicated both by the faunal record and the increasing complexity of foraging and related technologies, appeared earliest in the eastern Mediterranean region and spread (with modification) to the north and west. The behavioral changes associated with the Upper Paleolithic record signal a wider range of economic and technological roles in forager societies, and these changes in adaptation may have provided the expanding Homo sapiens populations with a demographic advantage over other hominins in Eurasia. Middle Paleolithic human reproductive units probably were not robust at the micropopulation scale, and localized extinctions were likely to have been common. The demographic robustness of the Upper Paleolithic systems may be explained by the rise of new, diversified strategies for evening-out or sharing risk. When and where Middle and Upper Paleolithic populations first came into contact, the marginal advantages provided by collaborative economies meant that replacement of the Middle Paleolithic groups was only a matter of time.


Division of labor hunter-gatherers Middle Paleolithic Upper Paleolithic hunting zooarchaeology demography prey selection diet breadth resource intensification