Apr 19 2011

Efficient Slaughter

Humans are efficient killers – and we have been for a long time. It seems like the inevitable consequence of our cognitive evolution combined with our tribal and hunting instincts. It’s one of those quirks of evolution. When the right combination of features arises in a species, it can have profound effects on an entire ecosystem – or an entire planet.

But let’s back up a bit to pre-historic Homo sapiens. Various hunter cultures figured out ways to mass slaughter hundreds or even thousands of animals, even very large animals. In the Americas, for example. the Clovis culture (11-13k BP) learned how to take down very large prey, such as mammoths, but they generally killed only one or a few at a time.

They were succeeded by the Folsom culture (9-11k BP) who figured out how to surround their prey and kill dozens at a time. Later paleo-indians figured out how to herd bison over cliffs, killing hundreds at a time. It is still controversial the extent to which this overkilling contributed to the decline and extinction of some large game in the Americas (vs environmental or other factors).

Another example of mass slaughter, and the subject of a recent discovery, is found in Syria. Structures known as “kites” because of their appearance from the air are comprised of stone walls in a funnel shape leading into a walled pen. Archaeologists believe these structures were used to guide large herds of migrating animals, like gazelles, into the pens, where they were slaughtered by the hundreds.

Researchers have recently discovered a “killing pen” near one of these kites, with thousands of gazelle parts and signs of human butchery. There are equal numbers of males and females, and several yearlings – it looks like an random sampling of an entire breeding population. This provides the first direct evidence that the kite structures were indeed used to funnel herds to be captured and slaughtered.

Again – it is not known what impact this practice had on gazelle populations, but it must have been significant. It is also unclear if this practice was purely performed to obtain a source of meat, or if there was also a ritual aspect to it.

These examples remind us that humans are a very clever and deadly species. Even with what we would consider very primitive weapons (such as the stone points of the Paleo-Indians), a little bit of ingenuity led to the slaughter of entire herds.

Now, of course, that human cleverness is combined with more advanced technology (which itself is the result of that cleverness). I am all in favor of efficiency and technology, but we do have to recognize the downside of this given human nature. We have driven many species to extinction through over hunting. (Although most species that have gone extinct at the hands of humans resulted from loss of habitat or simply importing rats, cats, and dogs into new ecosystems.)

The efficiency of hunting of even some ancient humans reminds me of a short story in which scientists were running evolutionary simulations in a futuristic supercomputer. They noticed that whenever the big cats crossed a certain threshold of intelligence, they would wipe out the ecosystem through overhunting. They simply became too good at hunting.

The bigger concept here is that evolution is a blind force. Populations and species are adapted to their local conditions, without any long term planning. So if it just happens to come about that one species hits upon a combination of abilities and survival strategies that can potentially threaten the entire ecosystem – so be it. Some argue that this has already happened with humans. Hopefully we can employ our cleverness to do what evolution cannot do – plan for the future.

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Efficient Slaughter”

  1. SARAon 19 Apr 2011 at 11:30 am

    I saw an article yesterday about a odd new “sport” called Extreme Ironing. Obviously its a silly stunt that turned into a fad of sorts. But what interests me is what it says about our ability to adapt to a world in which some of our natural evolutionary traits are no longer needed.

    In many first world countries, civilization has created safety and a great deal of free time without purpose. In pre-history our free time could be spent thinking up and planning ways to slaughter thousands of animals (for example) and to be constantly vigilant to danger.

    Now, in the first world, we don’t have those absolute needs for survival. I wonder if we need to feel vigilant to danger, and so we use our ingenuity to create danger. A certain section of our society does it through extreme stunts and the rest of us watch.

    PS- Recently I’ve been feeling rather pessimistic about our ability to overcome our own natures, so I guess I will vote that we will wipe ourselves out within a millennium or less.

  2. CrookedTimberon 19 Apr 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Though aquatic species are more difficult to survey, indications are that we have vastly over harvested in many cases. Ocean acidification due to CO2 isn’t helping either, but these ecosystems are often overlooked by the general public because they are out of sight out of mind.

  3. ccbowerson 19 Apr 2011 at 12:59 pm

    “Clovis culture (11-13k BP) learned how to take down very large prey, such as mammoths, but they generally killed only one or a few at a time.”

    Perhaps I am confusing something, but I thought that mammoths were often killed by driving groups of them off cliffs resulting in many killings at a time. Perhaps this was not as common, but are more easily identifiable since many more bones would remain

  4. ccbowerson 19 Apr 2011 at 1:00 pm

    …or perhaps they did kill 1-2 at a time, but left he bones in place resulting in an accumulation at one site. Perhaps someone here know about this

  5. PScotton 19 Apr 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Great post. I’ve heard a lot of people express the fallacy that humans are the only species that kills for sport or fun/cruelty, when in fact this behavior has been documented in other apes.
    Can someone tell me if there is a human behavior that is completely singular in the animal world?
    Although some of these “discoveries” seem to be under debate, I’ve found that:
    Laughter is not exclusive to humans.
    Cruelty is not exclusive to humans.
    Sex for pleasure.
    Creative expression.
    Complex communication.
    Use of tools.

    So what do we, and only we, do?
    Shed tears for emotional pain?
    Kill over ideology?

    I’m not being as rhetorical as I might seem. I would really love to hear some answers.

  6. daedalus2uon 19 Apr 2011 at 5:27 pm

    I think self-delusion is a big one. The killing for ideology is actually more the killing for mundane things like power, food, territory, mates, power; people just delude themselves it is for ideology.

  7. Jeremiahon 19 Apr 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Buffalo Bill was the last of the paleo-indians?

  8. sonicon 19 Apr 2011 at 11:43 pm

    Only people ask questions over the internet by typing on a computer terminal.
    People also worship God or gods.
    People use money.
    People wear clothes.
    People worry about how they are different or similar to other creatures.
    Do you need more?

    Hopefully we will be the creatures who figure out how to be efficient at non-slaughter too.

  9. Chuck P.on 20 Apr 2011 at 8:23 am

    Examples like those cited above help illustrate the “myth of the noble savage”
    Pre-industrial peoples did not live en harmony with their environment. In fact, the only human society that attempts to care for the environment in a systematic way is our modern thechnological society.

  10. shawmutton 20 Apr 2011 at 9:10 am

    Good thing the modern science of wildlife management helps species survive, and in some cases thrive.

  11. johncon 20 Apr 2011 at 9:28 am


    I accept it’s not an easy question, but surely the (a) ability to reason and (b) a self-conscious awareness, to include an awareness of our own mortality, are the two most important distinctions.

    I would also take issue with your citation of “complex communication” as something we share with non-human animals. Of course, if is partly a question of degree but the complexity of human expression is many, many orders of magnitude greater than anything we have discerned in other animals. That is why it is capable of expressing highly complex rational thought.

    Of course, it is the existential awareness of our mortailty that is the most poignant difference. It is our tragic burden as a species and the high price we pay for our reflexive self-awareness.

    That fact, combined with the capacity for rational thought and expression, might be thought of as the uniquely human condition.

  12. D.P.on 20 Apr 2011 at 12:08 pm


    Complex communication.

    It does not matter whether communication is “complex” or not, what matters is what kind of information it is capable to transfer. In fact it is desirable to make communication as simple as possible but still being able to transfer all that variety of information; or as Einstein put it: โ€œEverything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.โ€

    So far, all studies of animal communication has shown that despite all their variety of forms and seemingly complexity, this communication is rather limited in terms of what it can convey. For instance, no so-called “animal language” can transfer any metalinguistic information, i.e. to describe language itself. Also, there is no grammar… At least, no generative grammar, which can produce an infinite number of meaningful statements using only limited number of units. Many experiments conducted with apes showed that while it is possible to teach them more than a hundred signs (words), but no ape could produce grammatically sentences on their own (they can repeat some sentences after the trainer or learn to put words in some order but it is not drive by grammar). So, they can use signs to warn about danger, to communicate their feelings, desire, location of food or some object; but they cannot use it to transfer some more general knowledge (such as to explain how to use some tool). All what apes learn from each other, they learn through observation of other apes, they cannot communicate their knowledge using signs. So, only humans are capable to use language to communicate any their learned knowledge to others, and thus to accumulate more and more knowledge over generations.

  13. PScotton 20 Apr 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Hmm. I wasn’t supporting, not intentionally anyway, the noble savage idea, so I’m not sure how that interpretation got in.
    Mine was just a very earnest question, and I appreciate all the responses–especially the knowledge-through-communication reply. Thanks, D.P!
    I’ve made a career out of filmmaking, and often lament the classes and opportunities I skipped in basic science.
    I’m interested in the natural sciences and zoology and primatology. If any of you have some suggestion on where I should start, I’d love to hear/read them. I’m considering auditing a university class this summer.
    My guess is I’ll have to start with Biology 101, since I really am quite ignorant of the basics.
    Love the blog, by the way, and usually love everyone’s comments.

  14. PScotton 20 Apr 2011 at 10:34 pm

    Oh, and thanks for all the other replies too!

  15. eiskrystalon 21 Apr 2011 at 4:02 am

    PScott you will find that it is all a matter of degrees. There are some specific things that we do that look unique, but generally they are part of a larger task-set that are already done or partly done by other animals. Usually we have merely taken it to a new level of abstraction.

  16. BillyJoe7on 21 Apr 2011 at 7:23 am

    “There are some specific things that we do that look unique, but generally they are part of a larger task-set that are already done or partly done by other animals. Usually we have merely taken it to a new level of abstraction.”

    Other animals even have that dreaded feeling of impending death.
    Even that is not entirely unique to humans

  17. johncon 21 Apr 2011 at 12:04 pm


    Yes, other animal fear impending death but an awareness that life is finite – not the same thing – seems to be a uniquely human property. It is probably the main driver of religion.


    Can I recommend The Ape and Sushi Master by primatologist Frans de Waal? In it he argues that apes have a form of culture based on imitation (actually very difficult to acheive and requiring a great deal of intelligence). Ergo, culture is not uniquely human.

  18. elmer mccurdyon 22 Apr 2011 at 9:27 am

    I know you see mourning behavior in various mammals, and I seem to recall something about it looking something like ritual for some, although I don’t remember the details at the moment.

  19. elmer mccurdyon 22 Apr 2011 at 9:45 am

    I guess I was thinking of elephants. http://animal.discovery.com/news/briefs/20051031/elephant.html
    I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re aware of mortality, but who knows?

  20. sonicon 22 Apr 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Elephants do apparently suffer loss. As do wolves.
    One problem is that it is easy to anthropomorphize the behaviors of creatures. It is less clear what is actually going on. For example, ants communicate by touch, chemical and sound. Some of the communications seem to have been worked out by scientists, but it is unclear what all is being said. Perhaps they are telling stories similar to Edgar Allen Poe. ๐Ÿ™‚
    If all life exhibit certain characteristics (slime mold communicate, have a society, farm..) then one possible explanation is that all life comes from the same source.
    Life comes only from life would be a statement of current experimental fact–
    I think that fits…

  21. Calli Arcaleon 25 Apr 2011 at 4:18 pm


    Yes, other animal fear impending death but an awareness that life is finite โ€“ not the same thing โ€“ seems to be a uniquely human property. It is probably the main driver of religion.

    I’ve never been satisfied with the thesis that religion stems mostly from fear of death. For one thing, not all cultures are equally concerned about death. For another, most of the time, when I hear that thesis it comes along with a sentiment that Christianity is reflective of all religions, which is not at all true, and that makes me somewhat suspicious of the notion.

    There is religious belief that has nothing whatsoever to do with a fear of one’s own death; more seems to relate to the fear of losing a loved one, which is definitely a different thing.

    How do you tell whether the knowledge of personal mortality is unique to humans? There’s really not a good way to test that in animals. You can tell if they fear things which would reasonably lead to their deaths, but is self-preservation proof of an awareness of mortality even when their lives are not in imminent danger? No, it’s not. You’d pretty much have to have a philosophical conversation with them, and how are you going to do that when we can’t sensible talk to any of them? We lack a common vocabulary. Recent work with Kanzi shows that bonobos may actually have a spoken language that we’re not aware of, because we can’t parse it; obviously this means researchers have no idea how complex it really is and how abstract of a concept could be represented in it. At this point, I think they’re as far as suspecting that the apes can tell each other, vocally, to point to the yogurt, so, it’s pretty damn preliminary, but enough to caution against drawing “talking/not talking” lines in the sand just yet.

    It’s possible there are animals with a philosophical awareness of their mortality, but at this point we cannot know.

    Religion, meanwhile, seems like a uniquely human property, except that we have such a hard time defining what exactly it is — and we tie up far more of ourselves than seems reasonable if it’s really just a superstitious analog to science. So clearly it isn’t. It’s not just a system of belief, it’s a *culture*, and we do know some animals have cultures — so it’s not that this is unique to us but that we express it in abstract levels that other creatures do not see to. Is this actually higher or better or just more human — are we defining the difference between humans and animals the same way a puddle defines the shape of the hollow it sits in — everything that is not shaped like it?

  22. BillyJoe7on 25 Apr 2011 at 8:19 pm


    “all life comes from the same source.
    Life comes only from life would be a statement of current experimental fact”

    In other words life always was. ๐Ÿ˜€
    Nope, there’s lots of good reasons why life probably (almost certainly) came from non life.
    But we have had this discussion before.

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