For early hominid hunters, there was no greater prize than an elephant. Kill just one of those, and a tribe could eat well for days. But when the elephants suddenly disappeared, something remarkable happened: Our hominid ancestors became more intelligent.
Homo erectus was particularly fond of eating elephants, and it isn't hard to see why. Elephants are slow moving, which makes them easy to kill, and their massive size provides a large number of people with bountiful food. As a bonus, elephant meat has just the right fat-to-protein ratio to sustain humans long-term, and unlike other animals that ratio remains consistent throughout the entire year. Like the bison for 19th century American settlers, they were the perfect meat.
And, like the bison, the elephant supply didn't last forever, though it did take more than a few decades to wipe out the population. Elephants were once common in the Middle East, which hundreds of thousands of years ago was the territory of Homo erectus. At one site recently excavated by archaeologists at Tel Aviv University, elephants accounted for 60% of all animal-derived calories. But by 400,000 years, elephants had completely disappeared from the region.
That date is intriguing, because it lines right up with the recent discovery in Israel's Qesem cave of a shockingly modern human tooth that dates back to 400,000 years ago. The researchers say the two events are likely linked — the loss of the elephants made the situation untenable for Homo erectus, and any hominids that wanted to survive there had to become better adapted to hunting and eating smaller, more agile prey.