F Rosa Rubicondior: Evolution News - Neanderthals In France Unaffected by Climate Change

Sunday 22 January 2023

Evolution News - Neanderthals In France Unaffected by Climate Change

Evolution News

Neanderthals In France Unaffected by Climate Change
Artist's representation of Neanderthals hunting a mammouth

Spear in hand

Credit: Matteo De Stefano/MUSE, CC BY-SA
In the Neanderthal site of Combe-Grenal, France, hunting strategies were unaffected by changing climate: Hunted animals at Combe-Grenal consistently came from open tundra-like habitats -- ScienceDaily

In a very neat example of how much information can be obtained by forensic examination and deductive logic, a team of paleoarchaeologists have shown that because climate change, profound though it was at times, never changed the food or distribution of the animals they hunted, Neanderthals in France never needed to change their hunting strategies.

This conclusion was arrived at after examining the microwear on the surface of the teeth of the remains of hunted animals found at the Combe-Grenal site in France. This microwear showed that, during the few weeks before they were killed, they ate the same vegetation regardless of the climate on the European tundra as the climate fluctuated widely during the Middle Palaeolithic from around 150,000 to 45,000 years ago when Neanderthals intermittently occupied the site.

The scientists' findings are published open access in PLoS ONE.

According to information supplied by PLOS:
The archaeological site of Combe-Grenal in France was inhabited by Neanderthals for many millennia throughout the Middle Palaeolithic from around 150,000 to 45,000 years ago. These inhabitants hunted local animals whose remains are also found at the site. During the Neanderthals' occupation, the region experienced numerous oscillations of climate and environmental conditions which are known to have impacted the habits of local fauna. In this study, Berlioz and colleagues investigated the habitat preferences of species hunted by the Neanderthals to investigate whether these environmental shifts affected Neanderthal hunting strategies.

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 was consistent across the many millennia recorded at Combe-Grenal, suggesting that these hunted animals continued to prefer an open-habitat feeding ecology, even during times of 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. In Combe-Grenal, these results put into perspective the link generally established between the evolution of the production of lithic tools and the adaptation of hunting strategies of human populations in response to environmental changes.

This information is essential to understanding the influences of local environmental changes on material culture or the human history. Further examination of similar data at other sites will allow researchers to investigate whether this trend holds true at different times and in different regions.

The authors add:

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

Context maps of Central France
Fig 1. Combe-Grenal rock-shelter: Geographic, climatic and environmental context.
a) Localisation: red dot: Combe-Grenal; grey dots: key regional environmental proxies. Sources of the maps: https://srtm.csi.cgiar.org/; IGN. b) Environmental and climatic context of Combe-Grenal, based on independent environmental proxies [27–30]: i) δ13C isotopic records from Villars Cave stalagmites; ii) Pollen percentages of the boreal and altantic forests iii) Sea Surface Temperatures records from the marine core MD04-2845. Heinrich events 4–6 are indicated by light grey intervals. It is worth noting that, as the part of Combe-Grenal sequence studied here has not yet been adequately dated by radiometric methods, correlations between climatic events, environmental changes and the site stratigraphy remain uncertain.

In the abstract to their published paper, the scientists say:

Large bovids and cervids constituted major components of the European Middle Palaeolithic faunas and hence a key resource for Neanderthal populations. In paleoenvironmental reconstructions, red deer (Cervus elaphus) occurrence is classically considered as a tree-cover indicator while Bovinae (Bison priscus and Bos primigenius) and reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) occurrences are typically associated with open landscapes. However, insights into the ecology of extant ungulate populations show a more complex reality. Exploring the diet of past ungulates allows to better comprehend the hunting strategies of Palaeolithic populations and to reconstruct the modifications through time of past landscapes. By reflecting what animals have eaten during the last days or weeks of their life, dental microwear textures of herbivores link a population and its environment. Here we analyzed, via Dental Microwear Texture Analysis (DMTA), the diet of 50 Bos/Bison, 202 R. tarandus and 116 C. elaphus preyed upon by the Neanderthals that occupied Combe-Grenal rock-shelter, one of the most important Mousterian archaeo-sequences in southwestern France considering its long stratigraphy, abundance of faunal remains and the variations perceptible in Palaeolithic material culture. Grazers and mixed-feeders are the most represented dietary categories among Combe-Grenal’s guild of herbivores, highlighting the availability, along the sequence, of open landscapes. The absence of clear changes in the use of plant resources by hunted ungulates through time, even though palaeoenvironmental changes were well-documented by previous studies along the sequence, is interpreted as resulting from the hunting of non-randomly selected prey by Neanderthals, preferentially in open environments. Thus, these results provide further insight into the hunting strategies of Neanderthals and modify our perception of potential links between subsistence and material culture. Combe-Grenal hunters “stayed in the open” through millennia, and were not forced to switch to hunting tactics and material technology adapted to close encounters in forested environments.

The conclusion is that, even though the climate fluctuated widely over the period, so long as the prey species for Neanderthals could continue to feed in the open tundra, Neanderthal hunters did not need to change their hunting strategy, so climate change did not result in major cultural changes.

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