Early hominins in Europe had quite a taste for rabbits and hares, new research reveals, challenging the standard view that human ancestors primarily hunted big ungulates, such as oxen.
From the point of view of energy expenditure, hunting large and somewhat lumbering animals makes a lot of sense, and indeed there is plenty of evidence to show they were firmly on the menu. A single large deer, for instance, contained a lot of edible protein.
Rabbits and hares, on the other hand, while no doubt plentiful in some areas, represented a fairly small return for a fairly large investment. The animals were agile and moved very fast, presenting a small and difficult-to-hit target that yielded only meagre amounts of meat.
For this reason, paleoanthropologists have assumed that bunnies and their ilk were pretty much ignored.
Research led by Eugene Morin from Trent University in Canada, however, has shown the assumption to be false – at least for ancient humans living in the south of France.
In a paper published in the journal Science Advances, Morin and colleagues detail their examination of 21 fossil bone assemblages from eight known hominin occupation sites in the northwest Mediterranean region of France. The sites date back as far as the Lower Paleolithic period, which began around 2.5 million years ago.
All but one of the bone collections contained large numbers of leporid bones – the generic term for rabbits and rabbit-like creatures. Furthermore, 17 of the 21 sites produced bones that showed clear cut marks – strong evidence that the animals had been killed and butchered using tools. This evidence ruled out the possibility that the rabbits may have been killed and devoured by other animals, such as foxes or wolves.
The idea that early humans, and probably Neanderthals, scorned rabbits and hares arose because most occupation sites excavated in western Europe have revealed large numbers of ungulate remains. This “has generally been interpreted as support for the view that they comprised most of the dietary picture”, the scientists write.
The notion even has a name. It’s known as the narrow breadth diet (NDB) hypothesis.
The latest discoveries, Morin and colleagues, write “indicate that the NDB hypothesis requires substantial revision”.
“Although likely of secondary importance relative to ungulates, the frequent exploitation of leporids documented here implies that human diet breadths were substantially more variable within Europe than assumed by current evolutionary models,” they conclude.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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