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What rabbits can tell us about Neanderthal extinction?

When thinking about the extinction of Neanderthals some 30,000 years ago, rabbits may not be the first thing that spring to mind. But the way rabbits were hunted and eaten by Neanderthals and modern humans -- or not, as the case may be -- may offer vital clues as to why one species died out while the other flourished.

What rabbits can tell us about Neanderthal extinction?
A museum in Quinson, France, shows a reconstruction of the environment 
of a Neanderthal man in the mid-Paleolithic period (80,000 BC) 
[Credit: Xavier Rossi, Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images]
Dr John Stewart, Associate Professor in Paleoecology and Environmental Change at Bournemouth University (BU), is part of a team which analysed data on rabbit bone remains, found in archaeological excavations of caves in the Iberian Peninsula. They found that while rabbits were a crucial part of the modern humans' diet, they were relatively under-utilised by Neanderthals.

"Rabbits originated in Iberia and they are a very special kind of resource, in that they can be found in large numbers, they are relatively easy to catch and they are predictable," said Dr Stewart. "This means that they are quite a good food source to target. The fact that the Neanderthals did not appear to do so suggests that this was a resource they did not have access to in the same way as modern humans."

The fact that Neanderthals -- typically associated with hunting large prey over short distances in woodland settings -- were seemingly unable to catch and kill such creatures is compounded by rapid changes in the environment. "The climate was changing and the ecology was decreasing in terms of the amount of animals they were able to hunt," Dr Stewart explained. "If Neanderthals were more tied to these large mammals, the loss of them could have driven them to extinction."

Evidence that modern humans were more able to hunt across large, open spaces -- and used technological innovations such as twine and traps to help them catch faster,smaller prey, including rabbits -- suggests that they adapted better to this change in surroundings. Dr Stewart said: "Modern humans had more that they could do -- they had more possibilities and were more able to cope with the deterioration of climate than Neanderthals were. If modern humans thrived when Neanderthals did not, it must mean that modern humans were better at exploiting resources than Neanderthals."

This ability to adapt to shifting temperatures is particularly pertinent, with climate change currently threatening to impact upon human life once more. "It does relate to our own situation currently, with humans now in this potentially perilous situation with climate change," said Dr Stewart. "From a long-term ecological perspective, all species go extinct -- that is an inevitability. But if we do not want it to happen sooner rather than later, we have to understand this phenomenon."

Dr Stewart's current work looks at how population changes in other species -- such as birds and lemmings -- at the time may mirror and have impacted upon what happened to the Neanderthals. He has also begun a multidisciplinary project with BU Associate Professor in Psychology Dr Jan Wiener and Senior Lecturer in Creative Technology Dr Christos Gatzidis. This will use computer game and eye-tracking technology to explore detection of prey in different environments and uncover more about how these abilities first evolved.

The extinction of the Neanderthals, our closest known relative, is a subject that continues to attract fascination and debate, and so it is important to Dr Stewart that his work can be accessed by people who want to find out more. Publishing open access is one way in which he hopes to achieve this. "It is a no-brainer, really," he said. "I do not think that any of us do research and want no-one to read it.

"Neanderthal extinction is one of the big anthropological issues -- it's the loss of the best known close relative that we've got, and I think most people have a passing interest. Our understanding of these species is amazing and it's only getting better as we are realising how important it is to ourselves."

Source: Bournemouth University [June 09, 2015]

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  1. Thanks a lot for this. It makes the Anatolia hypothesis less likely, although it's still possible that an early PIE-speaking (proto-Celtic?) agriculturalist dispersal from Anatolia along the Danube-Rhine into Europe (after c 6000 BC) was later followed by Yamnaya herders who had adopted an early IE dialect. IMO some linguistic arguments might suggest that c 3000 BC, an IE language (proto-Germanic?) was spoken on the Ukrainian steppes by the Corded Ware people (Marc Verhaegen 1997 "In support of the Gimbutas scenario" LOS Forum 24:13-14, and "In den beginne was het water" Hadewijch Antwerp p.184). The Dutch words touw & tooi have the same etymology, but different meanings (touw = "cord", tooi = "ornament"). They are related to tooien = "to decorate", voltooien = "to complete", German Tau = "cord", Gothic taujan = "to complete/make", runic (Gallehus horn, Jutland AD 400) ek horna tawido = "I horn decorated/made/finished" (Dutch: ik hoorn tooide). Weak verbs in Germanic frequently derived from nouns by -i/j- (cf pIE suffix -ei/i- = denominativa), -ian/jan in the infinitive. Proto-Germanic taujan thus meant "to use a cord", more specifically "to finish by decorating with a cord" (a Corded Ware pot). Later, after corded pots disappeared, and the connection with a cord was lost, the meaning generalised to "to decorate" or "to complete", as in Dutch (vol)tooien. If so, the linguistic influence of the westward migration of the Corded Ware people is probably best seen in the Germanic languages, but the genetic influence was probably a lot wider (esp. in the Roman Empire). If the Yamnaya Corded Ware people adopted an early IE language, which then evolved into proto-Germanic, this not only helps explain the geographical distribution of the Germanic languages (later followed by Balto-Slavic?), but possibly also the creolisation of Proto-Germanic.

  2. Neanderthals are "typically associated with hunting large prey over short distances in woodland settings", yes, many people think that, but they were not only unable to hunt rabbits, but also to hunt over short distances. Neanderthals had traces of cattails on their tools, traces of bulbs of waterlilies & grasses in their dental calculus, traces of plants in their faeces (El Salt), they had "taurodont" teeth suggesting plant foods, and at Gibraltar they ate fish, oysters, seals & whales (Stringer 2008 PNAS). Neanderthals had heavier skeletons than humans today, but lighter than in H.erectus, they had very broad bodies & pelvises, and legs shorter than ours, they had curiously long noses & projecting midfaces, and very large, long, low & flat skulls, they had larger brains than we have, so although their diet overlapped with ours, their lifestyles were different from ours. All their fossils were found in river valleys & oxbow lakes (often with 1 or 2 species of beaver) & at sea-coasts in Iberia, Italy & Greece & on Mediterranean islands. Heavy bones, long noses, larger brains & flat skulls are typical of mammals that are shallow divers. Waterlily roots are found underwater, and neanderthal anatomy & distribution confirm they must have followed the rivers & coasts, presumably seasonally (e.g. following salmon, or seasonally harvesting shellfish), where they ate all sorts of foods, including waterbirds (e.g. alks) & carcasses of large herbivores drowned or killed at the waterside: bones & stones preserve much better than plant foods or fish remains (biasing the archeological record, and making people think neanderthals were big-game hunters). No wonder they couldn't hunt rabbits. For a realistic view on neanderthal lifestyle, google researchGate marc verhaegen.


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