In Europe, Stone Age hominids began adding small, fast animals to their menus much earlier than previously thought, scientists say.
Now-extinct members of the human genus, Homo, hunted rabbits and, to a lesser extent, hares in southern France and probably other Mediterranean parts of Europe by around 400,000 years ago, researchers report online March 6 in Science Advances. Hunters also bagged larger creatures such as wild goats and deer. The new finding may highlight the flexibility and innovativeness of these ancient relatives of humans.
That dietary shift to smaller animals away from eating primarily large game emerged long before a previously recognized change in ancient humans’ eating habits, concludes a team led by paleoanthropologist Eugène Morin of Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. In the later transition, Stone Age people dramatically broadened what they ate, including a wide variety of small animals, starting around 36,000 years ago.
Morin’s group studied 21 sets of animal fossils and stone tools previously excavated at eight sites in southern France. All but one collection included large numbers of fossil leporids, the family of rabbits and hares. Cuts made by stone tools, likely during butchery, appeared on leporid remains from 17 fossil sets. At the oldest site, Terra Amata, about half of 205 identified animal bones from a 400,000-year-old sediment layer belonged to leporids. Other small-game sites studied by the researchers dated to as recently as around 60,000 years ago.
Ancient Homo groups mainly hunted rabbits that probably existed in large numbers in Mediterranean areas ranging from Spain to Italy, Morin’s team suspects. Colony-dwelling rabbits were probably easier to hunt than hares, which are solitary animals. After 40,000 years ago, the investigators suspect that humans hunted hares regularly, possibly tracking the elusive creatures down with the aid of dogs by 11,500 years ago (SN: 2/16/19, p. 13).