“Man the Hunter” is still with us: an archaeologist’s “take” on the primacy of nutrition in the evolution of big-game hunting

John Speth
Date and Time: 
Friday, January 18, 2013 - 2:15pm

Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 51A (Colloquium Room)


Since its inception, paleoanthropology has been closely wedded to the idea that big-game hunting by our hominin ancestors arose, first and foremost, as a means for acquiring energy and vital nutrients, with prestige and social standing an additional bonus. This assumption is not often questioned, and seems intuitively obvious—meat is a nutrient-rich food with the ideal array of amino acids, and big animals provide meat in large, convenient packages. John Speth suggests instead that the primary goals of big-game hunting, at least outside of arctic and subarctic habitats, were actually largely social and political—increasing the hunter’s social standing and prestige—and that the nutritional component often was the added bonus. Dr. Speth looks at the role of big-game hunting among some of our best known modern hunters and gatherers—the San and Hadza—and together with an examination of historical and current perceptions of protein as a nutrient, questions the long-standing view that big-game hunting evolved primarily as an effective and reliable means of putting food on the table.


John D. Speth is Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology and Curator of North American Archaeology in the Museum of Anthropology. He completed his BA (1965) in Geology at the University of New Mexico, and his MA (1968) and Ph. D (1971) in Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Speth studies hunter-gatherers, past and present, New World and Old World. He is interested generally in the evolution of forager diet, subsistence strategies, and food processing technologies and, more specifically in the ways that hunter-gatherers (and small-scale farmers) cope with seasonal and inter-annual unpredictability in their resource base. Largely through fauna, he also is exploring the nutritional and economic basis of Plains-Pueblo interaction in the American Southwest and Neanderthal hunting in the Near Eastern Levant.

EcoGroup (Anthro 364): Ecology and Environment Winter Colloquium Series