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Neanderthals Didn't Eat Rabbits. Was That a Big Mistake?

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What killed the Neanderthals? This question has long been the topic of heated debate among paleoanthropologists, and the theories are numerous: Was it climate change? Volcanoes? Their inability to harness fire? Researchers now say in the Journal of Human Evolution that they have a new tool in the search for answers: rabbits.

While these bouncing, burrowing mammals were a big part of the modern human diet tens of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals—Homo neanderthalensis—didn’t have a taste for them. This small but significant detail could be key to understanding their demise. 

John Stewart, associate professor in paleoecology and environmental change at Bournemouth University, is part of a team comparing data on animal remains found at Neanderthal archaeological sites in Spain and Portugal with those found at modern human sites. What our ancestors ate is a good indication of how they lived, hunted, and adapted to their surroundings.

“It appears that basically modern humans were vastly more likely to hunt rabbits than were Neanderthals,” Stewart says.

This is perplexing, because rabbits would have been perfect targets; they exist in large numbers and would have been relatively easy to hunt, since they live in burrows. “You can harvest them if you’re clever,” Stewart says. But Neanderthals didn’t hunt them like H. sapiens did, and this proved deadly when the Ice Age took hold and many of the Neanderthals’ favorite protein sources (megafauna like mammoth and reindeer) were wiped out.  

“It would imply that basically this is why modern humans were able to survive into the colder period around 20,000 years ago,” Stewart explains. “As the climate deteriorated, Neanderthals were unable to turn their hand to resources like rabbits like modern humans were. This is why you see one human species surviving and the other not. It’s part of the whole pattern.” 

This study challenges the theory that competition with modern humans for resources is what killed the Neanderthals. “Differences are difficult to use as evidence for competition, because if you’re doing two different things, that implies you’re not competing,” Stewart says. 

Why Neanderthals didn’t eat rabbits remains a bit of a mystery, but Stewart speculates that perhaps they didn’t develop the tools to create traps. “One thing is clear: If you look at fauna records of modern humans, they seemed to be able to hunt a much broader variety of things, and presumably that’s because they had more tricks up their sleeves,” Stewart says. 

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Mark Golitko
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6000-Year-Old Skull Might Belong to World's Oldest Tsunami Victim
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Scientists speak to residents in Aitape.
Mark Golitko

Tsunamis and other natural disasters have taken a deadly toll on human populations for millennia, and now we may have the oldest example of that truth yet. An international team of anthropologists and environmental researchers recently analyzed a cracked skull that belonged to a person who likely died in a tsunami some 6000 years ago. They detail their find in a new study published in PLOS One.

The partial skull in question, known as the Aitape skull, was found in Papua New Guinea in 1929 during a geological survey by an Australian scientist named Paul Hossfield. It has since been dated to the mid-Holocene epoch, or around 6000 years ago.

For the current study, the scientists returned to the site of the 1929 discovery to sample and analyze the sediment there to find out more about what might have killed the person millennia ago. They had only Hossfield's basic field descriptions to go on, but University of Notre Dame anthropologist Mark Golitko, one of the study’s authors, says that based on those descriptions, they think they were able to sample within 100 yards or so of the skull's original location.

The top of a brown cracked skull against a pink background
Arthur Durband

Based on the grain size, chemical signature, and marine microalgae found within the sediment samples, they were able to determine that around the time that the skull was buried, the area was inundated with water, probably from a tsunami. At that time, the site, located near the present-day town of Aitape, would have been just along the shoreline. Aitape was also the site of a devastating tsunami in 1998, and the Holocene sediments resembled the ones associated with that disaster.

It's possible that the skull was buried before the tsunami hit, and the grave was ripped apart by the waters and the rest of the bones scattered. However, during the powerful 1998 tsunami that killed more than 2100 people in Papua New Guinea, bodies buried in modern cemeteries were not uprooted even as the sediment above them washed away, making it more likely that the ancient skull belonged to someone killed in the disaster.

The new analysis has "made us realize that human populations in this area have been affected by these massive inundations for thousands of years," study co-author James Goff of the University of New South Wales said in a press statement. "Given the evidence we have in hand, we are more convinced than before that this person was either violently killed by a tsunami, or had their grave ripped open by one."

Field Museum anthropologist John Terrell, another co-author of the study, said, "If we are right about how this person had died thousands of years ago, we have dramatic proof that living by the sea isn't always a life of beautiful golden sunsets and great surfing conditions."

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6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.

1. MARY LEAKEY WAS A BORN EXPLORER.

Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.

2. FOSSIL HUNTING WAS IN HER BLOOD ...

Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.

3. ... BUT SHE WASN'T A GREAT STUDENT.

Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)

4. LEAKEY WAS AN ARTIST WHEN SHE MET HER FUTURE HUSBAND AND RESEARCH PARTNER, LOUIS LEAKEY.

Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.

5. MARY LEAKEY'S FIRST BIG DISCOVERY WAS PROCONSUL AFRICANUS.

Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.

6. ANOTHER ONE OF MARY LEAKEY'S FAMOUS FINDS CAME COURTESY OF ELEPHANT POOP.

In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell

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