The isotope evidence overwhelmingly points to the Neanderthals behaving as top-level carnivores, obtaining almost all of their dietary protein from animal sources. Recently data from the Spanish OIS3 site El Salt modified this picture by biochemical analysis of Neanderthal excrements. This data instead indicate to an omnivore behavior. Although Neanderthals consumed mostly meat, they ate at least some veggies too. One of the compounds found at high levels, coprostanol, comes from the breakdown of cholesterol by microbes in the gut and is a good indicator of meat in the diet. Another, called 5β-stigmastanol, was found in one of five fecal samples and is made during the digestion of plants. The analysis of phytolith assemblages, which were part of a late Middle Paleolithic (dated to the OIS4/3 boundary) at Amud (Galilee; Israel) already showed earlier a clear and repetitive evidence for the exploitation of mature grass panicles, inferred to have been collected for their seeds by Neanderthals.
After the discovery of the spears of Schöningen by Thieme in 1995, there can be no doubt, that early humans were sucessful hunters, and not disabeled scavengers, as once thought.
Here I review the evidence that H. Neanderthaliensis hunted large proboscideans (Mammuthus, Elephas, Parlaeloxodon antiquus).
In this context, several questions should be answered positively:
- Are the findings from a undisturbed context?
- Is there an association between butchering tools with the animal remains?
- Is there an association between hunting implements and the animal remains?
- Does microtraceology confirm the use of the artifacts as butchering- or hunting tools?
- Are there cutmarks on the bones?. It has to be noted, that the absence of cutmarks does not exclude butchering, especially in proboscideans.
The context of layers 3 and 6 at La Cotte de St. Brelade (Jersey, English Channel Islands) dated to MIS 6, which contain bone accumulations of Mammuthus primigenius and woolly rhinoceros at the botton of a deep ravine indicate, that the animals were intentionally killed. Mousterian Points with impact fractures are present at the site.
The best example of a “fossilized hunting situation” is the findings at Lehringen (Lower Saxonia, Germany). The site is securely dated to the Last Interglacial (MIS 5e). A thrusting spear, 2.39 m long and made of yew wood, was found among the ribs of an adult Palaeoloxodon antiquus, together with 25 Levallois artifacts. Microtraceology showed that these tools were used as butchering knifes.
At Gröbern (Eastern Germany) the bones of an adult male Palaeoloxodon antiquus, were associated with 26 unretouched flakes in a lakeside setting dated to MIS 5e.
At Fritzlar, Schladenweg (Germany, Northern Hesse, near Kassel), Elephant and Bison bones were associated with Middle Paleolithic artifacts (some flakes and a transversal scraper).
At Asolo (OIS 4 or 3), a site in north-eastern Italy, skeletal remains of an adult female Mammuthus primigenius were found together with several Levallois tools. One of these tools, a Levallois point, displays an impact fracture and therfore may have served as a projectile point.
Soressi et al. studied the lithic material of the Mousterian site «Petit Jardin à Angé» (80 k.a BP) and found many diagnostic impact fractures on Mousterian points (n=23), indicative for their use as a part of composite devices in large game hunting.
Lynford Quarry is the location of a well-preserved in-situ Middle Palaeolithic open-air site in Mundford in the English county of Norfolk dated to ca 60 k.a. BP (early IOS3). Lynford is believed to show evidence of hunting by Neanderthals. The finds include the in-situ remains of at least 11 woolly mammoths, associated with Middle Paleolithic stone tools (imported and highly reworked handaxes of Bout-coupé , sub-triangular or ovate form, Quina-like scrapers, non-Levallois debitage).
Recently T Uthmeier, presented stimulating arguments, that question the archaeological data that are used as argument for the hypothesis of Middle Paleolithic hunting of large terrestrial animals. He assumed that regular hunting of animals weighting more than one ton can be excluded. This is not seen as the inability of Neanderthals to do so, but as a number of rational decisions due to small group sizes.
Seen in the NMH 2014: Baby mammoth “Dima” was recovered from permafrost in northeastern Siberia. Thought to have died around 40,000 years ago, the carcus still retained some of its chestnut-coloured hair.
The PDF of the 529-page English Heritage report about the Neanderthal mammoth butchery site at Lynford in Norfolk is now available for free (saving you £100!) at the link below: