Neanderthal is an extinct human species. The causes of its extinction are still debated. By examining the place of Homo neanderthalensis in their ecosystem, we can better understand their evolutionary history.

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

From 150,000 to 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals lived for many millennia at the archaeological site of Combe-Grenal (France). These residents hunted local animals whose remains have also been found on the site. During that time, various climatic and environmental changes take place in that area, which affect the habit of the local fauna. In this study, Berlioz and colleagues examined the habitat preferences of species hunted by Neanderthals to investigate whether these environmental changes influenced Neanderthal hunting strategies.

When considering prehistoric societies whose livelihoods depended heavily on the hunting of large mammals, knowledge of the animal communities they hunted is critical to better contextualizing human-environment interactions. Understanding the ethology and ecology of the seasonal behavior of these hunted species and their long-term evolution is essential to better understand human behavior during the Paleolithic.

These factors ultimately determine people’s acquisition, livelihood and mobility strategies. It also expands our understanding of how global climatic fluctuations have affected local paleoenvironments and human groups.

Emily Berlioz said: “By studying the teeth of herbivores hunted by past human populations, we can gain a great deal of information about the environment in which both prey and predators reside. Because dental microclothing captures the last moments of these animals’ lives, it also provides evidence of the last landscapes they grazed in before being hunted to death.At Combe-Grenal, these are open areas, which give us information about the hunting grounds used by Neanderthal hunters.”

“This makes it possible to determine nutrient ecology and infer the paleoenvironments of fossil species from locations where vegetation is mostly unfossilized.”

From dental facets to paleo-ecological reconstructions.
From dental facets to paleo-ecological 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 paper’s co-authors (E. Discamps). This study aims to achieve three objectives: (i) to investigate the paleoecology (particularly dietary preferences) of bovids and cervids hunted by Neanderthals in Combe-Grenal, (ii) to contribute to a better understanding of the paleoenvironment of Combe-Grenal and its evolution over time, and (iii) provide new insights into the survival strategies of Neanderthal populations, from the perspective of ungulate palaeoecology.

The authors examined nearly 400 specimens of the site’s hunted animals, including bison, aurochs, red deer and reindeer, taking advantage of wear and tear on the animals’ teeth to derive their diet during the last days of their lives. The animals appeared to feed mainly on plants that grew in an open, tundra-like environment.

This pattern remained consistent over several millennia, suggesting that these hunted animals favored an open-habitat feeding ecology, even during significant climatic fluctuations. As a result, Neanderthal hunters remained “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 lithic tool production and the adaptation of hunting strategies of human populations in response to environmental change.

Further examination of comparable data in other locations will allow researchers to examine whether this trend holds at different times and in different regions.

The authors said: “Dental microwear texture analysis of ungulates at Combe-Grenal shows that Neanderthal hunting strategies over millennia were unaffected by climatic and environmental fluctuations.”

They obtained rather than represent local habitat changes due to climate change. Their results provide very interesting information about Neanderthal hunting strategies. At Combe-Grenal, people chose to always hunt in open areas rather than adapting their hunting strategies to habitat changes due to climatic variations. Extreme temperature fluctuations reflect the extreme climatic changes of the late Pleistocene. Their hunting strategies remained the same during periods of climate change.

Scientists now look forward to investigating the seasonality of hunting in Combe-Grenal. They also plan to carry out the same research on other prehistoric sites, from this period and this region, but also from other periods and regions, to see whether our results obtained at Combe-Grenal are generalizable and to what extent.

Magazine reference:

  1. Berlioz E, Capdepon E, Discamps E (2023) A long-term perspective on the Neanderthal environment and livelihood: insights from the tooth microwear texture analysis of hunted ungulates in Combe-Grenal (Dordogne, France). PLoS ONE 18(1): e0278395. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0278395