Neandertal slaughters

6 minute read

Back in 2016, Mark White, Paul Pettitt and Danielle Schreve published an interesting analysis in which they compared how Neandertals hunted and butchered animals at five “kill sites” in France, Germany, and Poland: “Shoot first, ask questions later: Interpretative narratives of Neanderthal hunting”.

The five sites represent different species of prey animals: bison, horse, rhinoceros, reindeer, and aurochsen. The sites vary in geological age from the last interglacial some 120,000 years ago up to the height of the last glacial, around 50,000 years ago.

Individually, each site shows Neandertals making effective use of geographic features of the landscape, such as changes in topography, narrow side branches to valleys, and marshes next to steep hillsides, which enabled them to channel fleeing animals into situations where they were cornered, and then to kill indiscriminately.

Our conclusions indicate that Neanderthals did not necessarily pre-select individuals from a herd, who they then isolated, pursued and killed, but rather ambushed whole groups, which they slaughtered indiscriminately. There is strong evidence, however, that Neanderthals were highly selective in the carcasses they then chose to process. Our conclusions suggest that Neanderthals were excellent tacticians, casual executioners and discerning diners.

As a group, these sites show Neandertals maximizing the chance of successful kills by using topography, while minimizing need for chase and tracking injured animals.

Kill sites are very different from cave sites or occupation sites. The kill sites have evidence for butchery tools and the remains of carcasses that were not transported away by Neandertals to other places. They may represent many instances in which Neandertals encountered and killed animals in the same geographic place, and indeed several of these sites are inferred to represent a large number of visits by Neandertal groups, over many years.

As such, these sites present a very particular kind of evidence about Neandertal behavior. These are among the places where Neandertals were most lethal, using their knowledge of the landscape and of animal behavior to give them an advantage.

For example, the site of Mauran, France, represents the accumulated remains of more than 130 bison, killed over a millennium or more by Neandertals who were using the local landscape to trap and ambush groups of animals:

The original excavators have already used the landscape and character of the bison assemblage to provide a reconstruction of Neanderthal hunting at Mauran (Farizy et al., 1994). In this account, the topography at the site — a rocky limestone barrier fronted by open vegetation and marshy ground — provided a natural trap into which Neanderthals could drive and corral bison (Farizy et al., 1994 see Fig. 2). The stratigraphy and differential bone preservation were taken to indicate that the site represented hundreds of separate events over several centuries with individuals and small groups taken each time, rather than a few massive North American jump-style slaughters.

The Taubach, Germany, site preserves evidence of multiple single-animal kills of rhinoceros over time. This site shows that for these large herbivores, at least, Neandertals were targeting young individuals with a strategy that separated them from other adults.

But sites like these do not document a single-kill strategy for any of the medium-sized herbivores that were the Neandertals’ main prey animals. The authors boldly put forth a challenge:

However, we eagerly await a convincing Middle Palaeolithic example of a targeted, isolated killing of a medium-large gregarious herbivore.

What they are emphasizing is that Neandertals made use of their knowledge of the social and flight behavior of these animals to kill them. Separating one animal from a group, using persistence hunting methods as wolves do, would not have been a good strategy for the physical abilities of Neandertals. Hunting communally, killing animals at a topographical and seasonal advantage, and making use of the most valuable parts of carcasses was.

Nonetheless, these communal kills probably were not all of Neandertal hunting behavior. To begin with, they don’t summarize the entire diversity of the behavior of the herbivores. It is equally part of the social behavior of many of the medium-sized herbivores to have single bachelor males and bachelor groups. With such groups, opportunities to obtain single prime-age animals or groups of prime-age animals would not have been uncommon. Sites that represent repeated kills over many years might include such instances within the overall pattern but they would be obscured within the statistical distribution of all the others.

Rock shelters and caves, which are not kill sites, present a record that is a different compound of events over time. The faunal remains at these sites were transported by Neandertals from primary kill sites. Those transport choices bias the record to some extent. They also represent multiple kill sites, which in some instances were places where different species of animals were the preferred prey.

A great example is Abric Romaní, a rock shelter near Barcelona. Juan Marín and coworkers recently examined the age profiles of horses and deer excavated from the site: “Neanderthal hunting strategies inferred from mortality profiles within the Abric Romaní sequence”.

The equids display prime dominated profiles in all of the analyzed levels, whereas the cervids display variable profiles. These results suggest that the Neanderthals of Abric Romaní employed both selective and non-selective hunting strategies. The selective strategy focused on the hunting of prime adults and generated prime dominated profiles. On the other hand, non-selective strategies, involved the consumption of animals of variable ages, resulting in catastrophic profiles. It is likely that in the selective hunting events were conducted using selective ambushes in which it was possible to select specific prey animals. On the other hand, encounter hunting or non-selective ambush hunting may have also been used at times, based on the abundances of prey animals and encounter rates.

OK, that was two “on the other hands” in the abstract.

The core result is that the horses are strongly biased toward prime age adults, while the deer are a mix of prime age adults, juveniles, and older adults, a catastrophic profile. The deer look like they could have been hunted in ways reflected by the kill sites discussed by White, Pettitt and Schreve. The horses, on the other hand, look like very selective exploitation. That might mean that the Neandertals were hunting bachelor groups, or they had situations that enabled them to hunt lone adult horses more effectively.

Marín and coworkers further suggested that the reason for exploitation of juvenile deer may have been economic rather than dietary:

Binford [24] observed hunting events in which the Nunamiut (Tulekana and Kakinya) exclusively hunt young reindeer in order to obtain soft leather for clothing. Lithic use-wear analyses at Abric Romaní show that worked skins existed within the sequence, with work on fresh leather being more common [134]. In addition, lithic functionality studies in level Ja relate denticulate and notch features to the hardening of hides [81]. In the Abric Romaní sequence, although young individuals have been identified in almost all of the studied levels, they do not reach 71% of the total, as in level I. Therefore, in this level, the hunting of cervids seems to have been specifically intended to obtain this prey of low economic return, possibly to obtain their hides.

A similar suggestion was made by White and colleagues, who recognized that Neandertals may have killed animals in larger groups occasionally for valuable parts such as hides.

In contrast to the paper by White and coworkers, John Speth (2018, as well as earlier papers) has emphasized that Neandertals could not have been indiscriminate in their choice of age and condition of prey animals, for nutritional reasons. Unlike carnivores, hominins cannot subsist on diets with high protein proportions and must seek out prey animals with fat available.

I wanted to point to that argument here, and I will return to it at greater length. A brief consideration suggests there’s no contradiction between the ambush hunting patterns documented by White and coworkers, and the need to consume high proportions of dietary fat. The notion of overkill followed by selective consumption would have enabled Neandertals to choose the most fat-rich parts of carcasses for immediate consumption.