If Homo erectuss life was unlike modern humans' lives in the far north, then what was it like? Did these proto-people live in caves or not? And if they did, how did they defend themselves from the large carnivores that certainly did live there? If they were unable to harness fire effectively, what was their relationship to it?
We saw previously that Homo erectus at Longgushan did not apparently gather, eat, and sleep around a central point inside the cave and keep the fires stoked with wood from outside. Otherwise, we would see the telltale phytoliths and silica-rich residues characteristic of hearths in the cave sediments. We now also know that Homo erectus apparently migrated to the warmer south during the cold phases of the Pleistocene. From these two pieces of evidence we can deduce that Homo erectus followed the pattern of land use characteristic of its ancestors in Africa—camping in the open, probably with lightweight shelters built of tree branches and anchored by stones set in the ground. So far such a campsite has not been discovered in or around Longgushan, but we can be relatively certain that this is where the hominids whose remains ended up inside the cave spent most of their time.
The sediments of Longgushan cave give us no clue that hominids camped and lived there long-term. Stone tools and their marks on fossil bone are there, and evidence of episodic use of fire is there—both attesting to the presence of Homo erectus. But the archaeological pattern is more suggestive of a commando raid than of the comfortable cave home so often invoked by theorists of old. We believe that hominids armed with stone tools and weapons, the primary one of which—fire—they still did not fully control, entered Longgushan cave to pilfer meat from the resident carnivores. Perhaps bringing in dry brush from the outside, they torched the cave, setting fire to the dry guano and scaring off the hyenas, lions, wolves, and bears long enough to preempt their kills.
An interesting study on the paleoecology of Pleistocene sites in Africa provides an important although indirect confirmation of this model of Homo erectuss ecological behavior. Lillian M. Spencer of the University of Colorado at Denver carried out a study of the savanna-adapted antelopes living in the period during which Homo erectus first evolved.11 She found that grazing species adapted to secondary grasslands became prevalent about two million years ago. Secondary grasslands are maintained by fire that is caused by the increasing aridity of climate and, at least today, also by human fire setting. We hypothesize that fire became an important ecological tool for Homo erectus, a means by which the species could extend its optimal environment and its control over other species. The adaptation became powerful enough to allow the species eventually to spread out of Africa and into Eurasia.
Physical changes accompanied erectuss migration across the Old World. Body size increased and legs increases in relative length. Longer lower limbs meant that the stride became significantly longer. More ground could be covered in a single day of foraging for food over open, fire-maintained grasslands.12 Although the fossil remains from Longgushan are not complete enough for us to make this deduction directly, the much more complete skeleton of the "Turkana Boy" from Kenya has demonstrated this fact of Homo erectuss anatomy.13 Thus, ecology relates to anatomical change. In an interesting paper that compared the long-legged patas monkeys to their short-legged vervet monkey cousins, Lynne Isbell and her colleagues suggested that efficiently covering a large area to find food was the critical element in effecting this anatomical change.14 Comparing the patas monkey to Homo erectus, these authors suggested that the same ecological and evolutionary forces worked to increase hominid leg length. Homo erectus literally walked for their food.
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