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paleoanthropology, genetics and evolution

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The bison bone bed at Gran Dolina

In an earlier post, I looked at work by Mark White, Paul Pettitt, and Danielle Schreve, which considered evidence for Neandertal prey selectivity at five sites. One of those, Mauran, France, was a site where Neandertals repeatedly killed groups of bison, amounting to more than 130 animals over many years.

A 2017 paper by Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo and colleagues demonstrated a similar pattern of bison hunting in the TD 10.2 layer of Gran Dolina, Atapuerca, Spain: “Human predatory behavior and the social implications of communal hunting based on evidence from the TD10.2 bison bone bed at Gran Dolina (Atapuerca, Spain)”. There, around 400,000 years ago, hominins left the partial remains of more than 60 bison, forming a bone bed of more than 22,000 specimens.

The results indicate a monospecific assemblage heavily dominated by axial bison elements. The abundance of anthropogenic modifications and the anatomical profile are in concordance with early primary access to carcasses and the development of systematic butchering focused on the exploitation of meat and fat for transportation of high-yield elements to somewhere out of the cave. Together with a catastrophic and seasonal mortality pattern, the results indicate the procurement of bison by communal hunting as early as circa 400 kyr. This suggests that the cognitive, social, and technological capabilities required for successful communal hunting were at least fully developed among the pre-Neanderthal paleodeme of Atapuerca during the Lower Paleolithic. Similarly, the early existence of mass communal hunting as a predation technique informs our understanding of the early emergence of predatory skills similar to those exhibited by modern communal hunters.

It’s not clear whether the hominins at Gran Dolina were early Neandertals like those represented approximately 450,000 years ago in the Sima de los Huesos, or whether they may instead have belonged to some other population. Whoever they were, they must have had a place somewhere nearby where they could kill small groups of bison at two different times of year.

Why nearby? Because they transported basically whole bison bodies into Gran Dolina, where they butchered the animals further and then carried most of the long bones somewhere else. What was left was mostly skulls, vertebrae, and ribs—an unusual proportion of ribs compared to most faunal assemblages. The hominins paused as they butchered to break the ribs and “snack” on red bone marrow.

Why two seasons? Because newborn bison are born at a single time of year, making it possible to work out what season first-year juveniles must have been killed, and the bone bed includes first-year juveniles of at least two different seasons.

Also, there’s this detail:

Human tooth marks on the bison-set have been identified on 192 specimens (Table 5). They are predominantly located on ribs (76.3%) and, to a lesser degree, on unidentified flat bones (7.3%) and hyoids (5.7%), 48.4% of which are associated with other anthropogenic modifications, such as cut marks (Supplementary Online Material [SOM] Table S1). A large range of human tooth marks produced during the consumption of the carcasses have been characterized and recorded, although scored and pits are the most abundant.

The authors emphasize that the bison bone bed is a distinct pattern of evidence about hominin hunting. There are non-bison bones in the layer from many different animals, but these constitute only a small fraction of the total, and none of them have clear evidence of human modifications such as cutmarks. Both the bison and non-bison material has evidence of carnivore modifications. But the representation of large parts of the axial skeleton and the evidence for human butchery show that humans had primary access to the bison carcasses, and carnivores ravaged the bones later, after the humans were done with them. The ribs bear abundant evidence for removal of the viscera, which is rare at other sites mainly because ribs are much less likely to be present.

In total, these show that effective communal hunting of large mammals was part of the behavior of hominins in Europe well before the appearance of Middle Paleolithic toolkits. Rodríguez-Hidalgo and colleagues compare the site to others across western Eurasia:

This is fully consistent with other well-documented and thoroughly taphonomically investigated assemblages from the Middle Pleistocene, such as Bolomor, Cuesta de la Bajada, and Gran Dolina TD10.1 and Gran Dolina TD6 in Spain (Blasco, 2011; Saladié et al., 2011; Domínguez-Rodrigo et al., 2015; Rodríguez-Hidalgo et al., 2015) Schöningen in Germany (Voormolen, 2008; Starkovich and Conard, 2015; Van Kolfschoten et al., 2015) and Gesher Benot Ya'aqov and Qesem in the Near East (Rabinovich et al., 2008; Stiner et al., 2009); in which hunting emerges as the main method to acquire animal carcasses.

As such, these particular hominin-accumulated sites have a very different profile than carnivore-accumulated sites, in that the hominins have been much more selective on a few prey species. That’s compared in this figure from Rodríguez-Hidalgo and coworkers, which looks at the number of individuals of prey species represented (on the x-axis) compared to “evenness”, which is a measure of how equally represented different prey species are. The carnivores here do not focus their attention on single species as often as these hominin accumulations have done:

Prey species evenness from Rodríguez-Hidalgo et al. 2017.

This is notable again for the similarity between the Gran Dolina bison bone bed and the Mauran bison accumulation, from the last interglacial.

The bison bone bed also differs from both earlier and later layers of Gran Dolina. This suggests that the cultural and environmental conditions that gave rise to bison kills near the site were localized in time.

Obviously these kinds of sites where dozens of kills give sufficient information to look at the entire process of hunting and butchery across a limited period of time are relatively rare in the archaeological record.

A site like Gran Dolina tells us that such kill-dense sites cannot be strictly representative, because over hundreds of thousands of years of hominin activity at the site, the bison bone bed represents only a limited time, and very different hunting preferences predominated at other times.