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Meet the Scientist Studying How Humans Started Eating Meat | Smithsonian Voices

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Headshot of paleoanthropologist Brianna Bubener in a red jacket with an early human skull holding text on her face on a white background.

Briana Pobiner studies the diets of ancient humans to learn more about how they evolved.
Smithsonian

Juicy beef breast or pork might decorate your table this holiday season—a far cry from our ancient ancestors’ first forays into carnivores. About two and a half million years ago, early humans began using sharp-edged tools to cut the carcasses of animals they encountered, devouring any meat and nutritious marrow they could pry.

For “Meet a SI-entist,” we spoke with Briana Pobiner, a research scientist and educator in the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History who studies this early culinary development. Bubiner shares what it’s like to research the ancient past and what she enjoys most about working with other paleoanthropologists in the field.

How did you become interested in learning about humans in the very distant past?

In my first semester of college, I had a meeting with an academic advisor to find a fourth semester to take. I had attended college and was thinking I might have wanted to major in English – I wasn’t really into science. She was a former anthropology professor, and she suggested that I learn anthropology. I said, “I don’t even know what this is,” and I explained that anthropology is the study of people. I thought, “That looks cool.” So, I took an introduction to an anthropology class, and then the next semester, I signed up for a class on primate evolution and behavior. I had a great professor and loved the course. Then I went to an ancient anthropology field school in South Africa, and I was hooked!

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Paleoanthropologists study ancient bones for signs of slaughter and compare them to modern bones dropped by large predators.

Brianna Poppiner

You study the evolution of the human diet. What type of evidence or data do you use in your research?

The cool thing about ancient diets is that there are lots of different evidence to study. What I do is look at animal bone fossils from archaeological sites, especially animal bones that have evidence of human massacre. This is a kind of “rolling pistol” for evidence of the existence of humans: they slaughtered and ate these animals.

How does your research intersect with the museum’s collections?

Most of the research I do is not actually on collections within the museum. The collections I study are mostly in museums in Africa – sometimes in Europe and Asia. But I also have on loan a collection of modern animals from Kenya that I have collected and eaten by large predators. Early humans competed with large predators to eat animals, so I also want to learn what it looks like when large predators eat animals – and I can do that by studying the bones of modern animals. Then I can look for the damage patterns of those predators on the fossil bones as well.

When and why did humans start eating meat?

About two and a half million years ago, early humans began eating meat occasionally. About two million years ago, this happened more regularly. Perhaps about a million and a half years ago, humans started getting better parts from animals. They’ve gone from just throwing away the leftovers to possibly getting early access to the corpses.

“Why” questions are the impossible-to-answer questions about the past. Whether the resources were changing in the landscape or if there were more animals around for early humans to encounter – I don’t know. However, perhaps the question “how” can be answered. Early humans did not have sharp fangs like predators, so they were unable to physically bite corpses. It was truly the invention of technology and stone tools [that made meat-eating possible] – Such as using round rocks to crush open bones to reach the marrow inside, and rocks with sharp edges to cut meat from the bones.

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Pobiner combines analysis of museum specimens with archaeological excavations to answer her research questions.

Kovarovic fire

Therefore, it is difficult to know the “why”. What other challenges do you face when doing research on things that happened long ago?

I always feel like I’m trying to put together a puzzle without all the pieces. Until we have time machines, we can’t go back and make observations in the past—and I think that’s never going to happen in my life, or maybe ever.

I also always try to take small pieces of evidence and put together a larger picture. But there may be evidence that we are lost, and the fossil record is always incomplete. This lack is perhaps the biggest frustration to anyone who has been searching for evidence in a long time. But it also means that each fossil has the potential to provide us with new information.

In your work, you interact with a lot of ancient bones, both from early humans themselves and from the animals they ate. What is it like to hold these things in your hands and spend time with things from long ago?

amazing thing. When I was a PhD student, I ran excavations in northern Kenya as part of a summer study abroad programme. I spent every summer helping teach undergraduates how to mine. We dug up butchered fossil bones from 1.5 million-year-old sites, and every time I pulled a bone out of the ground, it literally felt like I had gone through time. I was touching a bone that had not been touched in a million and a half years – it was magical. And even when I browse through the museum’s collections, every time I look at the greatness there can be a discovery there, which I find really exciting.

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Much of Bubiner’s fieldwork in Kenya is carried out in collaboration with other researchers and professionals.

Jennifer Clark, Smithsonian

Do you have any other preferred field experience?

In addition to studying fossils, I have also studied modern bones that have been damaged by predators. I drive and watch the predators eat the things, then wait until they are finished and go collect the leftovers. I feel like, “I can’t believe this is my job.” It’s wonderful. I mean, sure, sometimes I accidentally drive into the den of hyenas, or elephants chase after me. But you can always find something new when you do your research.

What is your favorite thing about the work you do?

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is that I almost never do it alone. I collaborate with a variety of different types of scientists on different teams. I even do projects with other people who have similar experience as me, because often butchers can be a little more mysterious to recognise. A few of us who are butcher mark professionals get together and look at the same signs to come to a consensus. And sometimes it’s a team of 40 people who have a whole bunch of different kinds of experience while prospecting. I really like the collaborative aspect of the kind of science I do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Get to know SI-entistThe Smithsonian’s Museum is so much more than world-renowned exhibits and artifacts. It is a center of scientific exploration for hundreds of researchers from all over the world. Once a month, we’ll introduce you to a Smithsonian (or SI-entist) scholar and the incredible work they do behind the scenes at the National Museum of Natural History.

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