Much to their surprise, archaeologists have discovered that archaic humans and Neanderthals living in southern Europe ate rabbits and birds hundreds of thousands of years ago. That had not been expected, they report in Science Advances on Wednesday.
This isn’t to say Neanderthals and other sapiens precursors had expansive diets including birds and rabbits everywhere they were. But at least at eight sites explored in today’s Spain, France and Italy, they had broader palates than had been assumed. The sites range in age from 400,000 years ago to about 40,000 years ago.
The later sites were peopled by Neanderthals. The earliest site that the team checked was Terra Amata, an open-air site in Nice, France, featuring rabbit bones with cut and burn marks, dated to about 400,000 B.C.E. That wasn’t only before Homo sapiens existed: Neanderthals didn’t quite exist either. The earlier sites had been apparently occupied by a transitional type of hominin, possibly precursors to Neanderthals, perhaps Homo heidelbergensis, lead author Prof. Eugene Morin of Trent University tells Haaretz.
This means that a theory bruited about in 2013 that Neanderthals starved to extinction because they couldn’t catch small, elusive, speedy animals during famines seems to be highly unlikely.
The early ancestors of today’s monkeys, apes and humans subsisted on fruit, leaves, roots, and bugs, as gorillas for instance do to this day. They don’t seem to have eaten meat at all, or very little. But by the time australopithecines were running around Africa a few million years ago, our ancestors seem to have developed omnivorous ways. Certainly by the time hominins reached Eurasia, they were hunting.
In the case of Neanderthals, meat is thought to have comprised up to 80 percent of their diet: they were even probably the apex predators of their domain.
But the assumption had been that when Neanderthals and archaic human types hunted, it was only for big game: giant sloths, mammoths, deer and so on. (Let us not get sidetracked by the discussion about hunting versus scavenging.) Much archaeological evidence - the discovery of butchered remains of large animals - has supported that view.
So the discovery reported by Morin and a French-American-Canadian team, that bunnies and other fleet-footed prey were commonly being butchered and cooked over fires in Europe hundreds of thousands of years ago, even though they're so hard to catch and have so little meat, was quite the eyebrow-raiser. The archaics didn't even have arrows yet.
Survival of the fleetest
At Terra Amata and the other (mostly coastal) sites in Spain, France and Italy, the main target animals were big ones, as expected. But the team also found more evidence than expected that small, zippy animals were consumed.
“All across Europe, hominins and, later, the Neanderthals preferred to hunt ungulates, including the northwest Mediterranean region,” Morin said. “But in the northwest Mediterranean, they also exploited small fast game (diet breadth expansion) during periods of food shortage to enhance their chance of survival.”
Elsewhere in Europe, the early people have not been found to have augmented their paleo-cuisine with rabbit, Morin elaborates. In North Africa, rabbits and birds also existed but the archaeological record is too spotty to make generalizations, he adds. For the nonce, at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco, where remains of Homo sapiens going back 300,000 years were found, the evidence indicated that their chief target animals were gazelles, “with the occasional wildebeest, zebra and other game and perhaps the seasonal ostrich egg.”
Spearing a nice bulky elk is one thing. How much meat is there on a rat or rabbit? Catching one seems like a lot of gratuitous trouble for very little meat, hence the surprise that the archaic hominins were also depending on the inconvenient to catch.
Okay, we have established that they did, somehow. Why they do it, and how? “Here, we are in the realm of speculation,” says Morin.
First of all, when looking at evidence over hundreds of thousands of years, resolution is an issue. It is possible that this southern European rabbit consumption fluctuated, perhaps seasonally, perhaps mainly when the big game became scanty for whatever reason. In other words, at times of famine, the archaic humans may have been reduced to fleet-footed snacks with which they had a high “potential encounter rate.”
“If archaic Homo had not been ready to expand their diet breadth during periods of food shortage, than they would have systematically ignored rabbits and small fast game even when they abounded, as was presumably the case in the northwestern Mediterranean region,” Morin points out.
As for how the archaic humans caught the little beasts, that’s even more speculative. The arrow hadn’t been invented yet, though crude spears had been. But it is not clear however whether such early hominins had light spears they could throw, as opposed to great big spears that they would jab into the prey animal.
However they did caught their hares and rabbits, apparently the heidelbergensians and Neanderthals weren't raiding warrens. And how did the team conclude this?
“Our samples do not contains the babies normally present in warrens," Morin answers. "Spear hunting is a possibility, but also snaring and trapping. We cannot distinguish between these different procurement techniques at the moment.” Which is one way to say that we don't know how far back trapping goes.
To tell the difference between rabbit remains leftover from hominin meals and rabbits that flopped over and died in the general vicinity, or were eaten by other predators, the scientists note cut and burn marks on the bones, and the hallmarks of marrow extraction in most of the sites, if not all the sites. It bears adding that the scientists found that burn marks on the bones were common at the oldest site, Terra Amata. We don’t know if the archaic hominins could control fire yet, in the sense that they could light it. But they evidently had a good idea how to use it to cook bunny rabbit.