Dr John Stewart, Associate Professor in Paleoecology and Environmental Change at Bournemouth University (BU), is part of a team which analysed data on rabbit bone remains, found in archaeological excavations of caves in the Iberian Peninsula. They found that while rabbits were a crucial part of the modern humans’ diet, they were relatively under-utilised by Neanderthals.
“Rabbits originated in Iberia and they are a very special kind of resource, in that they can be found in large numbers, they are relatively easy to catch and they are predictable,” said Dr Stewart. “This means that they are quite a good food source to target. The fact that the Neanderthals did not appear to do so suggests that this was a resource they did not have access to in the same way as modern humans.”
Evidence that modern humans were more able to hunt across large, open spaces — and used technological innovations such as twine and traps to help them catch faster,smaller prey, including rabbits — suggests that they adapted better to this change in surroundings. Dr Stewart said: “Modern humans had more that they could do — they had more possibilities and were more able to cope with the deterioration of climate than Neanderthals were. If modern humans thrived when Neanderthals did not, it must mean that modern humans were better at exploiting resources than Neanderthals.”
This ability to adapt to shifting temperatures is particularly pertinent, with climate change currently threatening to impact upon human life once more. “It does relate to our own situation currently, with humans now in this potentially perilous situation with climate change,” said Dr Stewart. “From a long-term ecological perspective, all species go extinct — that is an inevitability. But if we do not want it to happen sooner rather than later, we have to understand this phenomenon.”
This is another of those Neanderthal theses that is vulnerable to the first new find of a pile of rabbit bones in the midden of a Neanderthal cave. Same as the claim that Neanderthals didn’t use fire.
But the authors’ message, at least in the media release, seems largely to be about the perils of ignoring climate change toay. So maybe it doesn’t really matter about the rabbits anyway.
See also: Neanderthal Man: The long-lost relative turns up again, this time with documents
A deep and abiding need for Neanderthals to be stupid. Why?
Note: It’s not even clear that the Neanderthals did die out, as opposed to simply losing their separate identity in the human migrations. Some modern groups seem to have some Neanderthal genes.
Here’s the abstract:
High dependence on the hunting and consumption of large mammals by some hominins may have limited their survival once their preferred quarry became scarce or disappeared. Adaptation to smaller residual prey would have been essential after the many large-bodied species decreased in numbers. We focus on the use of a superabundant species, the rabbit, to demonstrate the importance of this taxon in Iberia as fundamental to predators. We show that the use of the rabbit over time has increased, and that there could have been differential consumption by Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH). Analysis of bone remains from excavations throughout Iberia show that this lagomorph was a crucial part of the diet of AMH but was relatively unutilised during the Mousterian, when Neanderthals were present. We first present changes in mammalian biomass and mean body mass of mammals over 50,000 years, to illustrate the dramatic loss of large mammalian fauna and to show how the rabbit may have contributed a consistently high proportion of the available game biomass throughout that period. Unlike the Italian Peninsula and other parts of Europe, in Iberia the rabbit has provided a food resource of great importance for predators including hominins. We suggest that hunters that could shift focus to rabbits and other smaller residual fauna, once larger-bodied species decreased in numbers, would have been able to persist. From the evidence presented here, we postulate that Neanderthals may have been less capable of prey-shifting and hence use the high-biomass prey resource provided by the rabbit, to the extent AMH did. (paywall) – John E. Fa, John R. Stewart, Lluís Lloveras, J. Mario Vargas. Rabbits and hominin survival in Iberia. Journal of Human Evolution, 2013; 64 (4): 233 DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.01.002
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