Bunny bone bonanza shows Neanderthals skinned rabbits
The clues lie in missing paws from an ancient rock shelter. Dyani Lewis reports.
A bonanza of bunny bones found in a rock shelter in the south of France provides the first evidence that Neanderthals not only caught and ate the fleet-footed animals, but used their pelts, too.
The Pié Lombard site on the bank of the Loup river lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the foothills of the French Alps.
The uppermost layer of the site – first discovered in 1962 - dates to around 20,000 years ago, and shows signs of use by anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens.
But the layer below that was from the age of Neanderthals. Sediments contained characteristic Mousterian stone points typically used by these early humans, and thermoluminescent dating put its age at 70,000 years old – a cooler time than today that pre-dates the arrival of Homo sapiens to the region.
The layer also contained a unique treasure trove of bones belonging to leporids – rabbits and hares – according to a study published in Quaternary Science Reviews.
Palaeontologist Maxime Pelletier from the University of Oulu in Finland and colleagues sorted through the boxes and boxes of leporid bones collected at the site to figure out why they were there.
In total, the team analysed more than 16,000 bones from at least 225 individual animals. It’s the first site that indicates Neanderthals hunted small game intensively, rather than just sporadically.
The mere presence of rabbit bones in an archaeological site doesn’t necessarily mean they arrived there at the hands of humans.
For a start, rabbits have a nasty habit of burrowing into older archaeological sites. A warren collapse can then entomb the rabbits in the site. Pelletier, who led the study, ruled this out: there were too few infants among the remains to represent a natural rabbit population.
Other predators such as foxes and birds of prey can also attract animals. Indeed, most sites contain a mix of bones brought in by humans and other animals. That also wasn’t the case at Pié Lombard, says Pelletier. Signs of predation, such as teeth marks and digestion, were absent from the vast majority of bones.
That leaves Neanderthals as the primary source of leporids at the shelter.
Bones showed signs of roasting, and a majority of the long limb bones had been snapped in two, most likely to get at the marrow inside. It’s yet another indication that the rabbits were there at the hands of Neanderthals. “It's impossible for predators to make this type of breakage,” says Pelletier.
Bones also bore the cut marks of the Mousterian stone tools used by Neanderthals at the site.
But one quirk that caught Pelletier’s attention was the absence of rabbit paws and tails, combined with cut marks on adjacent bones.
This is likely the sign that pelts – with paws and tails intact – were removed. Had this occurred at a modern human site, it would be taken as clear proof the pelts were being used.
But it’s the first time a Neanderthal site has borne such evidence, says Pelletier.
“We cannot imagine the Neanderthals just consumed the meat and didn't exploit the fur after,” he says.
Neanderthals were known to use the fur of larger prey, such as deer. Nevertheless, Pelletier suspects the findings won’t convince everyone.
It was long presumed that Neanderthals were large-game hunters who lacked the cognitive wherewithal to catch small game like rabbits. Recent analyses have challenged that assumption, with studies finding they probably caught rabbits, fish, and even birds.
It “makes sense,” says anthropologist Eugene Morin from Trent University in Peterborough, Canada, who wasn’t involved in the study, but who has also studied the use of rabbits by Neanderthals.
“Their paper reinforces current claims that Neandertals had broader diets than generally claimed and that they frequently exploited, at least within the north-western Mediterranean rim, small, difficult-to-catch species” such as rabbits and birds, he says.
The finding adds to the long list of skills the Neanderthals shared with anatomically modern humans, including burying their dead, wearing jewellery, processing pigments and making bone tools and cave art.
“What remains to be answered is how these prey were caught,” says Morin. “Were they caught communally, for instance, by a group of people exploiting a warren? Were they snared or hunted with a spear?”
Finding new Neanderthal sites, or sifting through remains from other old excavations could help to answer these questions.