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23 December 2007
Reindeer: it's what was for dinner in prehistory

Reindeer meat went from being an occasional treat to everyday fare among prehistoric cavemen who lived in Southwest France and what is now the Czech Republic, two new studies suggest. In fact, so many nibbled-on reindeer bones were present in their caves that possible calendars circa 26,000 years ago might have been carved on the leftover bones. They may have also been used as counting devices or for ornamentation.
     The first study, authored by J. Tyler Faith, analyzed bones found in limestone cave and rock shelters at a site called Grotte XVI at Dordogne near Bordeaux. The numbers and types of bones revealed plenty - how, for instance, the hunters butchered the meat, how far they traveled to hunt, and details about populations of the animals themselves.
Faith, a George Washington University anthropologist, determined that 64,600 years ago, the cave dwellers - including Neanderthals - only brought back the choicest reindeer cuts. The meat seemed to multiply over the years so that by 12,285 years ago, virtually all parts of the reindeer were being eaten, with the animals constituting 90 percent of large mammal game. This suggests the reindeer population in the region steadily increased over the years, so the cavemen didn't have to travel far out of their homes to get a nutritious reindeer dinner. By the looks of things in the cave, during the Magdalenian era the dwellers filled themselves on everything from reindeer ribs to roast of reindeer as a result.
     Donald Grayson, a University of Washington anthropologist who has also extensively studied the French site, said that the new study is "important, insightful and innovative." The pollen record for the region, which reflects past vegetation, shows ever-decreasing summer temperatures favored more and more reindeer, which thrive under cooler conditions. According to Faith, when temperatures rose sharply after around 12,000 years ago, "reindeer became locally extinct and their southern boundary in Europe retreated northwards."
     Before this happened, prehistoric hunters in what is now the Czech Republic were also up to their ears in leftover reindeer bones.
A separate study published in this month's Antiquity describes two decorative art pieces from Predmosti that were carved on bone that likely was reindeer. Rebecca Farbstein, who co-authored the paper with Jiri Svoboda, admitted that "the small size and fragmentary nature of these pieces make interpretation about their meaning speculative." Farbstein, a researcher in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, and her colleague determined that the bones were covered with a distinctive grid pattern on one side. Based on a review of other objects from the same time period, the carved bones could indicate that prehistoric Europeans may have marked their time on bone calendars made out of the then-common animals.

Source: Discovery News (20 December 2007)

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