Thinking Scavening

For people in so called “developed” countries the concept of scavenging is aligned with much negativity. The scavenger is the unproductive, the hanger-on who hovers at the fringe of society, scooping up humanity’s unwanted detritus. We pity the grubby urchins picking through emergent topographies of garbage on the edges of third-world, wannabe, consumer societies, but we never value or appreciate them. The scavenger is the utterly dependent creature who hovers above or beside the fleshy product of a noble predator, waiting for an opportunity to steal, or seeking to displace by sheer weight of bald-faced numbers. It is not a problem that they eat the meat that someone else has killed; the majority of people who loathe scavengers do likewise. It is that they don’t produce. Scavengers steal, consume, and loiter, they eye the productive with jealousy, and they sneak off into the night with the fruit of someone else’s labor.

But there is more to scavenging than a simple distinction between productive and unproductive beings. There is, in fact, more to it than the challenge of displacing lions from a half-eaten zebra or the lightest of ecological footprints left by peri-urban scroungers.

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Scavenging is a very rattly skeleton in humanity’s closet, and I think it’s about time we took ownership of this not only worthy, but highly productive pursuit. It’s time to give scavengers the recognition they deserve. This is because scavenging is an integral part of what it is to be human. Not only does it constitute a perfectly reasonable – albeit sometimes dangerous – means by which modern forager and pastoral people obtain meat, it constitutes a key driver in human emergence in the Plio-Pleistocene.

Humans and their ancestors were meat eaters long before they were hunters. The stone tool record bears this out–Homo habilis and possibly Australopithecines took lumps of stone and knocked off flakes that they used to slice bits of meat off of the carcasses of animals killed by creatures far larger. They also smashed open long bones and extracted the fatty marrow, feeding the increasingly demanding brains in those comparatively small bodies. But it wasn’t just the challenge of creating a sharp stone tool that was cognitively demanding in the scavenger niche. In their attention to the flesh and bones of the dead, those earlier humans inserted themselves into an ecological paradigm that overlapped considerably with some formidable opposition: lions and hyenas. I say formidable not just in reference to these creatures’ sharp teeth and impressive speed, though certainly these are a challenge. What is formidable in lions and hyenas are their cognitive capacities. Among the carnivores, it is lions and hyenas that have the highest ration of neocortex to overall brain volume. In other words, the challenges associated with the early human scavenger niche were as much cognitive as they were anything else.

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But why is the scavenger niche cognitively demanding? There is no single reason. We can imagine that living in open country allows/compels larger group sizes, and social carnivores and primates must adapt to the resulting socio-cognitive challenges not only within their groups but across species. Ancestral humans had the temerity not only to steal morsels but to challenge hyenas and lions for ownership of the remains of their kills, and this would have taken a keen sense of how lions and hyenas think about the world and a wit that was quicker than the competition. What’s more, the problems associated with finding food in such a landscape demand an attention to signs and processes in which attention to trails of reasoning is rewarded by fleshy off-cuts. So rather than denigrating the humble scavengers, we should not only appreciate the tidying up that they do but recognize importance of their practice to what it is to be human. In human terms, scavenging is the most productive of lifeways–it produced us.

Suggested Readings
Brain, C. K. The Hunters or the Hunted: An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Dunbar, R. I. M. andJ. Bever. “Neocortex size predicts group size in carnivores and some insectivores.” Ethology 104(1998): 695-708.
O’Connell, J. F., K. Hawkes, an N. Blurton-Jones. “Hadza scavenging: implications for Plio/Pleistocene hominid subsistence.”  Current Anthropology 29.2 (1988): 356-63.
Shipman, P.  “Early hominid lifestyle: the Scavenging Hypothesis.” Anthroquest 28 (1984): 9-10.