The Neanderthal hunting strategies in France were unaffected by changing climate

Evaluating the climatic impact on Neanderthal hunting techniques and strategies.

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Neanderthal is an extinct human species. The causes of its extinction are still debated today. Exploring the place of Homo neanderthalensis within their ecosystem allows us to understand their evolutionary history better.

Neanderthals in Combe-Grenal (France) preferred to hunt in open environments, suggests a new study. This study-led by Emilie Berlioz of the CNRS/Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, France-focuses, on reconstructing the ecological responses of hunted ungulates at Combe-Grenal (Dordogne, France) to evaluate the climatic impact on Neanderthal hunting techniques and strategies.

From 150,000 to 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals’ lived in the archeological site of Combe-Grenal (France) for millennia. These inhabitants hunted local animals whose remains are also found at the site. During that time, several climatic and environmental changes occur in that area, impacting the habit of local fauna. In this study, Berlioz and colleagues investigated the habitat preferences of species hunted by the Neanderthals to examine whether these environmental shifts affected Neanderthal hunting strategies.

When considering prehistoric societies whose subsistence relied heavily on hunting large mammals, knowledge of the animal communities they preyed upon is critical to better con- textualizing human-environment interactions. Understanding the ethology and ecology of these preyed species’ seasonal behavior and their long-term evolution is essential to comprehend human behavior during the Palaeolithic better. 

These factors ultimately condition human acquisition, subsistence, and mobility strategies. It also enlarges our understanding of how global climatic oscillations have affected local paleoenvironments and human groups.

Emilie Berlioz said, “By studying the teeth of herbivores hunted by past human populations, we can obtain a lot of information about the environment both prey and predators occupied. As dental microwear captures the last moments of these animals’ lives, it also provides evidence of the last landscapes in which they grazed before they were hunted to death. At Combe-Grenal, these are open areas, which gives us information about the hunting territories used by Neanderthal hunters.”

“This allows determining the feeding ecology and inferring the paleoenvironments of fossil species from sites where the vegetation is mostly not fossilized.”

From dental facets to paleoecological reconstructions.
From dental facets to paleoecological reconstructions. Image Credit: Emilie Berlioz, CC-BY 4.0

This study is part of a larger project, the ANR Deepal, led by one of the article’s co-authors (E. Discamps). This study aims at fulfilling three objectives: (i) explore the paleoecology (notably feeding preferences) of bovids and cervids hunted by Neanderthals at Combe-Grenal, (ii)contribute to a better understanding of Combe-Grenal’s paleoenvironment and its evolution through time, and (iii) provide new insights on the subsistence strategies of Neanderthal populations, from the perspective of ungulate paleoecology.

The authors examined nearly 400 specimens of hunted animals from the site, including bison, aurochs, red deer, and reindeer, using wear on the animals’ teeth to infer their diets during the final days of their lives. The animals were found to have fed predominantly on plants growing in an open, tundra-like environment.

This pattern remained consistent over several millennia, suggesting that these hunted animals preferred an open-habitat feeding ecology, even during significant climate fluctuations. As a result, Neanderthal hunters “stayed in the open” and were not forced to switch to hunting tactics adapted to close encounters in forested environments. 

These results highlight the link between the evolution of the production of lithic tools and the adaptation of hunting strategies of human populations in response to environmental changes.

Further examination of similar data at other sites will allow researchers to investigate whether this trend holds at different times and in different regions. 

The authors said, “Dental microwear texture analysis of ungulate preys at Combe-Grenal shows Neanderthal hunting strategies were unaffected by climatic and environmental oscillations throughout millennia.” 

They obtained Instead of reflecting local habitat modifications resulting from climate change. Their results provide very interesting information on the hunting strategies of Neanderthals. At Combe-Grenal, humans chose to always hunt in open areas rather than adapting their hunting strategies to habitat modifications due to climate oscillations. Extreme temperature variations reflect the extreme climatic changes of the late Pleistocene. Their hunting strategies remained the same during periods of climatic change.

Scientists are now looking forward to exploring the seasonality of hunting in Combe-Grenal. They are also planning to conduct the same study on other prehistoric sites, from this period and this region, but also other periods and regions, to find out if our results obtained at Combe-Grenal are generalizable and to what extent.

Journal Reference:

  1. Berlioz E, Capdepon E, Discamps E (2023) A long-term perspective on the Neanderthal environment and subsistence: Insights from the dental microwear texture analysis of hunted ungulates at Combe-Grenal (Dordogne, France). Plos One. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0278395
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