|22 June 2010
Ancient bones reveal that Neanderthals hunted lions
Butchering marks on bone fragments recovered from the Gran Dolina cave site (Spain) indicate that Neanderthals not only scavanged the remains of cave lions killed by other predators, but that they may have hunted the dangerous animals themselves. Cut marks on the bones are similar to those found on the remains of the deer, bison and horses known to be common food animals of the period. According to Ruth Blasco, the leader of the study from Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain, they indicate that the lion or lions were gutted, meaning they were whole when butchered. Had they been killed by predators, the nutritious visera would have been gone. Since only 17 lion bones were found at the site, it is also possible that the Neanderthals came upon an intact animal that had died of natural causes. There is also evidence that bones were intentionally broken to access the marrow.
Also found at the site were bones of the hunters, Homo heidelbergensis, Heidelberg Man, a Neanderthal ancestor who lived during the Middle Pleistocene period, 300,000 to 350,000 years ago. Heidelberg Man is know to have used wooden spears and stone tools to hunt large animals.
Why ancient people would have risked hunting such dangerous prey is open for discussion. The Maasai in East Africa consider hunting lions an initiaion rite. Or, the lion(s) may have been killed because they threatened the community.
The interpretation of the findings is not without debate. Daniel Adler, an anthropologist from the University of Connecticut (USA), argues that there are too few remains to say definitively that the lion or lions were killed by the hunters. Teeth marks from other small scavangers are also found on the bones. "Even if the [early humans] at Gran Dolina hunted this cave lion, no other examples exist elsewhere in Eurasia, thus underlining the extreme rarity of such behavior," he said. "It is simply too risky an undertaking to have engaged a healthy adult cave lion," he said, adding that the promise of meat or prestige would have paled with the high risk of death.
Paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University (USA) agrees that the hunters may have happened across a dead lion and consumed it. "Lions die of all kinds of causes, and one can't rule out early access scavenging of a natural death," said Stony Brook University paleoanthropologist John Shea, who wasn't involved in the study. Ruth Blasco agrees that lion kills were very unusual.But she maintains that there is no evidence found of illness or injury on the lion bones. Her conclusion is that the most likely intrepretation is that the hominins killed the lion.
"Lions are situated in a very high position within the food chain, and obtaining them is dangerous and fraught with risk," she said. The early humans "Could be located in a similar position in the food chain, or even higher up than these large carnivores." Cave lions, Panthera leo fossilis, were considerably larger than their modern-day ancestors, reaching seven feet in length.
Sources: oneindia (8 June 2010), National Geographic News (14 June 2010)
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