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Oldest case of bison communal hunting found at Spain's Atapuerca site

Some 400,000 years ago, in Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain), people had to search for food almost on a daily basis, taking what was found around them. As hominids behaviour become more complex they also learned to organize themselves so as not to lose opportunities - and if these were indeed favourable - they learned to exploit them.

Oldest case of bison communal hunting found at Spain's Atapuerca site
Bison bone bed at Gran Dolina (Atapuerca, Spain) [Credit: IPHES]
In the Gran Dolina archaeological site, specifically in layer 'TD10.2', the IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) had identified a large concentration of bison bones, and now they understand the reason behind this accumulation. The latest investigations have revealed that this phenomenon resulted from the reiteration of certain events at the same place, specifically communal hunting episodes of these animals’ herds.

Fundamental planning was required to drive the bison to Dolina where they were trapped, killed and afterwards, once they had been butchered for their meat, bones and skins, taken to the campsite, the location of which is still unknown, but was probably not far from the kill site.

This much is confirmed in a recently published paper in Journal of Human Evolution whose main author is the archaeologist Dr. Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, postdoctoral researcher at Universidad Complutense de Madrid and associated researcher in IPHES.

“Until now it was thought that this behaviour was exclusive to anatomically modern humans, but we demonstrated that 400,000 years ago, it was already fully developed. The pre-neanderthals from Sima de los Huesos (another archaeological site located a few metres from Gran Dolina), are the likely culprits of this accumulation - they have the cognitive ability and the social development needed to accomplish this type of hunting strategy”, says Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

According to Dr. John Speth, emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Ann Arbor University (Michigan), this discovery is considered to be the most important discovery of Eurasian Prehistory in the last decade.

“The communal hunting of large, nimble and potentially dangerous prey like bison implies that hunters were able to cooperate with each other and effectively coordinate their activities on a scale not previously demonstrated for pre-modern humans about 400,000 years ago”, he says.

“The cooperative efforts to kill multiple individuals of an animal as large as the bison implies that the hunters may have shared the flesh among themselves, again insinuating a level of social complexity that had not been previously demonstrated for such a remote period”.

The taxonomic composition and the anatomical profile observed in approximately 23,000 bison bones (of a species yet to be identified and a close relative of Bison priscus) extracted in the TD10.2 level of Gran Dolina indicates a monospecific assemblage strongly dominated by elements of the axial skeleton (heads, ribs and vertebrae).

Studies suggest that the archaeological site where the bison remains were found may have been used as a kill site and first point of carcass processing. The bones show a very skewed skeleton representation and at the same time uncommon in the prehistoric sites, considering that the axial elements dominate.

“Due to the large number of prey involved in each communal kill, the hominids could select the richest parts in meat and fat, such as limbs, and bring it to their campsites, leaving the axial zone at the mercy of scavengers, wolves and hyenas”, observe Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

“Together with these remains there was an unusual large number of hyoid bones (located under the tongue), some of them showing cut marks, which suggests that during the butchering of the bison, hominids consumed their tongues as snacks, being rich in fat and protein, discarding the hyoid bones at the site”, adds the same researcher.

The abundance of anthropogenic modifications allows us to observe primary and immediate access to the carcasses, as well as the development of a systematic butchering process aimed at the exploitation of meat and fat, and the preparation for the transport of high utility elements to some place outside the cave.

“Ethnographic, ethnohistorical and archaeological analogies have made it possible to interpret the ‘bison bone bed’ as a kill site used during several seasonal communal hunting events in which whole bison herds were slaughtered to be intensely exploited by the hominids who occupied the cave”, said Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

According to the same research, this hunting event was repeated seasonally, probably in late spring and early autumn, following the migrations of these animals.

“Through the study of eruption, replacement and dental wear pattern we have been able to infer that the TD10.2 bison died synchronously in two narrow seasonal windows, which together with the catastrophic mortality pattern that the population presents (that is, a decrease in the frequency of dead individuals as the age advances), support mass hunting or communal hunting as a predatory technique”, says the same IPHES archaeologist.

Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo added: “the early existence of communal hunting as a depredatory tactic tells us that the cognitive, technological, and social skills similar to those exhibited by other modern communal hunters emerged as early as the middle Pleistocene”.

“A large number of coordinated individuals are needed, working cooperatively with the same objective to carry out this type of hunt, which until now was thought to be a modern human’s monopoly and perhaps also the last of the Neanderthals”.

From the Dolina finding it has been shown that the action of those hominids was similar to the events that were generated about 10,000 years ago, in the Paleo-Indian groups in America. Likewise, there are several similarities between the communal hunting of bison used by the Native Americans in the Great Plains before the eighteenth century and the practices applied by the Gran Dolina hominids, who had the ability to plan ahead and knew the animals’ behaviour and the environment.

It can be assumed that all members of the group had an active role in the hunt itself, some as hunters and others as beaters.

Researchers have also been able to document that there were other prey in the area to hunt, but the hominids deliberately decided to opt only for the bison and adopted a communal hunting technique that perhaps lasted several generations.

Author: C. Bellmunt | Source: IPHES [March 23, 2017]

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