Neanderthal and Magdalenian Human Hunting Strategies and Dietary Habits

Category Science

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This study, conducted by the University of Southampton, looked into the hunting strategies and dietary habits of Neanderthals and other human groups dating back nearly 100 thousand years. By collecting and analyzing strontium isotopes from teeth, the researchers uncovered the Neanderthals' preference in larger animals and the Magdalenian individual's reliance on smaller creatures and seasonal movement. These findings reveal insights into the differences between human groups of the past and their lifestyles.

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An international group of researchers, led by the University of Southampton, has offered a fascinating look into the hunting strategies and dietary habits of Neanderthals and other human groups residing in Western Europe.

The team scrutinized the chemical composition preserved within tooth enamel to reconstruct the lifestyle of prehistoric individuals in relation to their local environment. The study focused on the Almonda Cave network, situated near Torres Novas in the heart of Portugal, dating back nearly 100 thousand years.

Neanderthals went extinct around 40,000 years ago

Their findings, published in the journal PNAS, show Neanderthals in the region were hunting fairly large animals across wide tracts of land, whereas humans living in the same location tens of thousands of years later survived on smaller creatures in an area half the size.

Strontium isotopes in rocks gradually change over millions of years because of radioactive processes. This means they vary from place to place depending on the age of the underlying geology. As rocks weather, the isotopic ‘fingerprints’ are passed into plants via sediments, and make their way along the food chain – eventually passing into tooth enamel.

The Magdalenian period was the last major stone age culture of prehistoric Europe

In this study, archaeologists used a technique that laser samples enamel and makes thousands of individual strontium isotope measurements along the growth of a tooth crown. Samples were taken from two Neanderthals, dating back about 95,000 years, and from a more recent human who lived about 13,000 years ago, during the Magdalenian period.

The scientists also looked at isotopes in the tooth enamel of animals found in the cave system. Alongside strontium, they measured oxygen isotopes, which vary seasonally from summer to winter. This enabled them to establish not only where the animals ranged across the landscape, but in which seasons they were available for hunting.

These findings highlight insights into the differences between the Neanderthals and more recent human populations

The team showed that the Neanderthals, who were targeting large animals, could have hunted wild goats in the summer, whereas horses, red deer, and an extinct form of rhinoceros were available all year round within about 30 kilometers of the cave. The Magdalenian individual showed a different pattern of subsistence, with seasonal movement of about 20 kilometers from the Almonda caves to the banks of the Tagus River, and a diet that included rabbits, red deer, wild goat, and freshwater fish.

The Almonda Cave network was first discovered in the 1950s near Torres Novas, Portugal

The researchers approximated the territory of the two different human groups, revealing contrasting results. The Neanderthals obtained their food over approximately 600 square kilometers, whereas the Magdalenian individuals occupied a much smaller territory of about 300 square kilometers.

Lead author, Dr Bethan Linscott who conducted the research while at the University of Southampton and who now works at the University of Oxford said: "Tooth enamel forms incrementally, and so represents a time series that records the geological origin of the food an individual ate.

Neanderthals mostly targeted large, easy to hunt animals such as goats and cows

"Using laser ablation, we can measure the variation of strontium isotopes over the two or three years it takes for the enamel to form. By comparing the strontium isotopes in the teeth with sediments collected at different locations in the region, we were able to map the movements of the Neanderthals and the Magdalenian individual. The geology around the Almonda caves is highly variable, making it possible to spot the distinct isotopic signatures in the tooth enamel.

Humans change their lifestyle and diet within a few thousand years when the environment around them changes

"In this way, we were able to build an accurate picture of their respective territories, lifestyles, and dietary habits. This provides the opportunity to understand the nature of past interactions with the environment, the degree of mobility and the resources exploited by different human groups across the ages." .

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