Friday, February 25, 2011

what's next, hares?

Julien Riel-Salvatore, over at A Very Remote Period Indeed, is discussing this seriously cool piece of research about Neandertal ornamentation made from bird wings/wing feathers. (Yeah, I know I should go read the original, rather than read the blog comment, but my research time is so limited right now. Darn.)

Anyway, the site is in NE Italy, and cutmarks on bird wing bones suggest that Neandertals targeted certain species for their feathers. Bird wing bones are some of the most frequently used bones for beads and bone tubes, in my experience, but it doesn't sound like they have any evidence for that.

The reason I wanted to mention this blog post, though, is Riel-Salvatore's discussion of small prey hunting. Stiner et al. 2000 discussed the evolution of small-game hunting strategies in the Levant, from a focus on sessile or slow species, like shell-fish and tortoises, to a focus on fast species, like fish, birds, and hares, that require more time and technological investment to hunt. (And which have higher failure rates, as well.) Once Stiner published the model, of course, everyone wanted to prove it wrong, or at least find evidence that it didn't work in "their" corner of the world. Sure enough, there is growing evidence that Neandertals did hunt fast game, at least in some places. We now have evidence from Gibraltar and NE Italy to back that up.

I don't think we should be surprised, nor do I think this means Stiner's model is incorrect. If Stiner's logic is correct, and small, fast animals are only hunted when human population densities reach a high enough level to impact local sessile animals, then it makes sense that small, fast animals will be hunted in some places earlier than others. If we assume Neandertals were capable of hunting these animals, but chose not to under most circumstances (as is the case for most modern people in the Upper Paleolithic, as well), then we should also expect that Neandertals did hunt these small, fast animals when the circumstances made them an advantageous addition to the diet.

Arguably, a focus on ornamentation is also related to human population density. We have greater need to signal information about ourselves when we have frequent contact with individuals we do not know personally. This was not the case for most Neandertal communities, but it appears that in some cases, Neandertals did find themselves in circumstances where ornamentation was useful. If both ornamentation and small-game hunting strategies are tied to changes in population densities, we should expect to find them together. As, apparently, we do in NE Italy. Neat.

Stiner, M. C., N. D. Munro & T. A. Surovell. 2000. The tortoise and the hare: small game use, the Broad Spectrum Revolution, and Paleolithic demography. Current Anthropology 41(1):39-73


  1. Hey there, Palimpsest, and thanks for mentioning my post. I agree that Stiner and co.'s model hasn't been disproved, nor was I trying to suggest that it had been (in fact, I have a great deal of sympathy for the model and for the fact that's it pushed people to look for - and identify the procurement context of - small animals). My main point, I guess, wasn't so much geared at the 'broad spectrum' component of that, as to the 'no sexual division of labor in neanderthals scenario' that's recently been proposed to account for the alleged redundancy of neanderthal animal (and plant) exploitation patterns, which I think is more severely undermined by observations like those made by Marco and his colleagues. I think you're right that small game (esp. fast moving animals) will be pursued when and where it is possible and advantageous to do so. In fact, Fumane has yielded evidence that Neanderthals exploited marmot, hares (ha!), and even apparently porcupines (Fiore et al. 2004: 280), so apparently it wasn't just birds... all of which really underscores the unanswered question of how they were capturing these various small and often fleet-footed animals.

  2. PS: Love the blog! As a new dad myself, a lot of your recent 'child friendly academic workplace' series has really struck a note.

  3. Thanks - and congratulations on becoming a dad!

    Yes, I agree that this evidence very much undermines Stiner and Kuhn's argument against sexual division of labor. I just didn't mentioned that, since, to be honest, I never liked that argument much to begin with. As for diet breadth issues - there is increasing evidence from Iberia for some very sophisticated hunting by Neandertals, including fish, sea mammals, hares, and birds. (I'm sure that's true elsewhere, as well, but I only know the Iberian record that far back. My research focus is on agricultural societies.) It will be interesting to see how this evidence patterns, as researchers focus more and more on small game.