Early Europeans hunted hard-to-catch small game

March 7, 2019, Nottingham Trent University
Credit: Nottingham Trent University

Fleet of foot and lean of meat, rabbits are difficult to hunt and offer little sustenance. Yet research published in Science Advances by Trent University associate professor of Anthropology Dr. Eugene Morin has shown that they were frequently part of the diet of early humans and Neanderthals in the northwestern Mediterranean as far back as 400 thousand years ago.

In New evidence of broader diets for archaic Homo populations in the northwestern Mediterranean, Professor Morin and Dr. Jacqueline Meier of the University of North Florida examine bone assemblages from eight Lower and Middle Paleolithic sites in present-day France, including Terra Amata, an open air site near Nice where they collected rabbit bone assemblage data. The site is the earliest known location that humans hunted this type of game in Eurasia.

Prof. Morin's work challenges the general consensus that small fast game hunting began during the Upper Paleolithic period, about 40,000 years ago. Their work shows that even during early Paleolithic times, humans ate a wider variety of meats than the ungulates that accounted for the bulk of their calorie intake. This finding is also significant because it means that Neanderthals were able to expand their diet in contexts of food shortage, a type of behavior that was previously believed to be exclusive to early modern humans.

"Large game like horse, bison and red deer made up the majority of the meat ," says Prof. Morin. "But it's likely that, in the Northwestern Mediterranean region, difficult-to-catch animals like rabbits helped bridge gaps in food procurement in seasons where large animals scattered. This may have helped humans live at higher population densities than would have been possible otherwise, and could allowed more people survive periods of food shortage. Hunting rabbit might have been an efficient strategy to prolong survival, and since rabbits could be hunted by individuals or small groups, rabbit hunts might have involved different degrees of social prestige and cooperation than those that targeted larger animals."

The research also demonstrates that even during early Paleolithic times, there was geographical differentiation in diets in Europe. Hunters in the northwestern Mediterranean were likely hunting rabbits individually, which may indicate that primitive traps or snares were already in use. The research also raises questions about the significant social implications that hunting smaller game may have had.

Explore further: Upper Paleolithic humans may have hunted cave lions for their pelts

More information: E. Morin et al. New evidence of broader diets for archaic Homo populations in the northwestern Mediterranean, Science Advances (2019). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aav9106

Related Stories

Early human hunters had fewer meat-sharing rituals

August 13, 2009

A University of Arizona anthropologist has discovered that humans living at a Paleolithic cave site in central Israel between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago were as successful at big-game hunting as were later stone-age hunters ...

What rabbits can tell us about Neanderthal extinction?

June 9, 2015

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 ...

A numbers game—killing rabbits to conserve native mammals

July 23, 2018

Invasive species have a devastating effect on biodiversity. In Australia, introduced red foxes and feral cats have been implicated in the majority of the extinctions of the native mammal fauna, which has been decimated since ...

Recommended for you

Study reveals properties of a Type Ib supernova in NGC 4080

March 25, 2019

A recent study conducted by astronomers has revealed important observational properties of a Type Ib supernova designated MASTER OT J120451.50+265946.6, which exploded in the galaxy NGC 4080. The research, presented in a ...

Catalyst advance removes pollutants at low temperatures

March 25, 2019

Researchers at Washington State University, University of New Mexico, Eindhoven University of Technology, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a catalyst that can both withstand high temperatures and convert ...

8 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Gigel
4 / 5 (2) Mar 07, 2019
They were probably throwing sticks at them.
Shakescene21
5 / 5 (1) Mar 07, 2019
As the article notes, traps were probably the most common way that rabbits were hunted. Since traps were probably made from wood, wicker, and twine, it will be hard to find a trace of them.
Thorium Boy
1 / 5 (1) Mar 08, 2019
Humans are intelligent, they probably had traps, the first method was to learn to drive game using numbers of people, drive them off a cliff, or just run them down because endurance is a human trait, if not speed.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Mar 08, 2019
Yeah rabbits are easy to kill with a stick. Ask bear grylls and this young woman
https://youtu.be/BSRbdZKb-Qw
antigoracle
5 / 5 (1) Mar 08, 2019
It's quite probable that women and children trapped these small game, closer to home, while the men went further afield, after the larger animals.
Jeffhans1
not rated yet Mar 08, 2019
They used both rabbit sticks for the happenstance rabbit they flushed out during their day and trapping for the purposeful harvesting of the animals. Modern baseball pitchers owe their abilities to their long-dead ancestors who used the same motion to bring in enough food to let their kids live.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Mar 09, 2019
They used both rabbit sticks for the happenstance rabbit they flushed out during their day and trapping for the purposeful harvesting of the animals
Its possible rock- and stick-weapons were invented far earlier than traps which required engineering of multiple parts including cord or sinew.

Dont you think?
rrwillsj
not rated yet Mar 11, 2019
Throwing overhand has the advantage of accuracy & distance. The problem would be finding rocks of reasonable mass & aerodynamic.

Throwing under-handed has the advantage of short-range lethal.
Here the problem is if you only have one good throwing rock?
You are close up to whatever animal you just pissed off.
Royally!

Hardwood throwing sticks had several advantages. Could be used to dig up roots or a burrow of young. Used to pry rotting bark off a tree to get at the grubs. Clubbing a careless fish, then using the pointy end to gaff it onto land. Knocking down fruit & nests. Smacking a lazy child or a stupid snake.

Again the problem, once you toss it? You hope you can recover it.

The atlatl is an interesting compromise between throwing sticks & throwing rocks.

Leverage stepped up the power of the thrower with rocks or darts. With the advantage you weren't throwing away your distance weapon.

See wiki for all the variations of field hockey across cultures.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.