Ancient Man was not a hunter but the hunted, according to new research that suggests that human intelligence and social co-operation evolved to allow our ancestors to escape predators rather than to catch prey.
Studies of fossil teeth and bones from human species that lived millions of years ago indicate that meat did not play a significant part in diet, and that at least one in twenty met their end in a predator's jaws.
The findings support the idea that the communication skills and group living that are characteristic of modern Homo sapiens evolved as defensive measures against lions, hyenas, crocodiles and eagles.
If the predation hypothesis is correct, it might explain why hominids of the genus Homo, such as Homo erectus, survived to give rise to modern humans while other relatives such as Paranthropus, that lived alongside for hundreds of thousands of years, died out.
If Homo erectus and Paranthropus were threatened by the same predators, but the former's social skills made it even a little more likely to escape, the small difference would have become a great advantage over time. Predators would have taken more and more of the less evasive species, which would eventually have been driven extinct.
Research by Robert Sussman, of Washington University, St Louis, has identified that teeth belonging to an older species of hominid, Australopithecus afarensis, were poorly adapted for meat eating, suggesting that it was not a hunter. About 6 per cent of all A. afarensis bones, however, show tooth marks that are consistent with predation, indicating that this was a major cause of death.
"Fossil teeth weren't good for eating meat, so why would we hunt meat?" Dr Sussman told the conference. Augustin Fuentes, of Notre Dame University, Indiana, said: "The bottom line is that predation is important for our evolution. Humanity evolved more by helping each other than by fighting with one another."