National Geographic News
Three young rabbits in Alentejo, Portugal.

Neanderthals did not learn how to hunt small animals such as rabbits (pictured, a group of animals Portugal).

Wild rabbits gather in Portugal. Photograph by Duncan Usher, Alamy

A Neanderthal skull.

A Neanderthal skull from Wadi Amud, Israel. Photograph by Ira Block, National Geographic

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published March 11, 2013

Rabbits are small, fast, and devilishly hard to catch. And that could have had dire consequences for Neanderthals.

A new study suggests that an inability to shift from hunting large mammals to wild rabbits and other small game may have contributed to the downfall of European Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic period, about 30,000 years ago.

"There have been some studies that examined the importance of rabbit meat to hominins"—or early human ancestors—"but we give it a new twist," said study lead author John Fa, a biologist at the United Kingdom's Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Imperial College London.

"We show in our study that [modern humans] used rabbits extensively, but Neanderthals didn't."

Fa and his team analyzed animal bone remains spanning a period of 50,000 years from Neanderthal and modern-human-occupied sites across Iberia, the part of Europe that includes Spain and Portugal, and southern France.

They found that rabbit remains only started to became common at sites around 30,000 years ago, which is around the time that Neanderthals started to disappear and—perhaps not coincidentally—when modern humans first arrived in Europe.

The authors speculate that over the course of thousands of years, as climate change or human hunting pressure whittled down populations of Iberian large animals such as woolly mammoths, rabbits would have become an increasingly important food resource.

But Neanderthals may have been unable or unwilling to "prey shift" to smaller game, the authors argue in a new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

"Neanderthals were large mammals hunters, par excellence," Fa said, but they "could have found it difficult to hunt the smaller, but superabundant, rabbit."

John Shea, a paleoanthropologist at Stonybrook University in New York City who did was not involved in the research, agreed.

Most people underestimate how hard it is to hunt rabbits, Shea said. "If I say, 'Let's go hunt a mammoth,' you'll probably think I'm nuts and that we're going to die. But if I say, 'Let's go hunt rabbits,' then it's a piece of cake."

Weapons Not Up to the Task?

In reality, the cost and benefits for Neanderthals would have been almost reversed, Shea said.

"If you have the technology to kill a mammoth when you run into it"—as Neanderthals did—"then the risk is low and the return is high. Whereas with a rabbit, the cost in killing it is negligible, but the return is tiny."

The piercing spears and clubs known to have been used by European Neanderthals weren't very well suited for catching rabbits. In contrast, early modern humans used complex projectile weapons such as spear throwers and possibly bows and arrows—both of which are better for hunting small, fast-moving prey.

There are other ways to catch rabbits, however. There is evidence that Neanderthals were capable of making string, so it's very possible that they were able to weave nets and snares to use as traps, Shea said.

But even if Neanderthals could make such traps, they still might not have done so because of the high startup costs involved.

"There's more time and energy involved in trapping than most people think," Shea said. "You have to set a lot of them and monitor them, because once an animal is trapped, it becomes vulnerable to predation by rival carnivores."

The process could have been too demanding for Neanderthals, who likely had higher energy requirements than modern humans.

Stockier and more muscular than humans, and lacking humans' tailored clothes, scientists estimate that Neanderthals could have needed twice as many calories to survive and stay warm.

Bunny Hunting a Family Affair

Fa and his team speculate that most of the rabbit hunting among early modern humans may have been done by women and children, who could have stayed behind in settlements while the men went on hunting trips for larger prey.

The women and children "may have specialized in hunting rabbits, by surrounding warrens with nets or smoking the rabbits out of the warren," Fa said.

Ancient rabbit hunters may also have had help from a four-legged ally picked up during their travels from Africa: dogs. (Also see "Opinion: We Didn't Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us.")

The oldest fossil evidence for dogs is only about 12,000 years old, but there is genetic evidence suggesting dogs may have split from wolves as far back as 30,000 years ago-around the time that humans were arriving in Europe.

"What we are saying is that this may have occurred," Fa said. "The domestication of the dog for hunting purposes may have been a tremendous advantage for human hunters."

Why Not Adjust?

Bruce Hardy, an anthropologist at Ohio's Kenyon College, said he's unconvinced.

"I think the data is at a very gross level and they're drawing implications from it that are quite frankly speculative," said Hardy, who also did not participate in the research.

Hardy also finds it difficult to imagine that Neanderthals couldn't change their hunting strategies to target rabbits when they had thousands of years to do so, or turn to other food sources, such as plants.

"If they were this inflexible, why did they make it for 250,000 years?" Hardy said.

It's like saying "'Oh, the big animal are gone. I guess I'm going to starve now.' That doesn't make sense for any animal, not to mention a large-brained hominin that's very closely related to us."

But the Neanderthals' longevity might have been irreversibly tied to the big game they hunted, Fa said, and once those prey items disappeared, our highly specialized cousins found it difficult to adapt.

"We are not saying that small prey was not part of the diet," he said. "What we are saying is that the Neanderthals could have specialized to such an extent that [it] did not allow them to use a superabundant but more difficult to catch food source."

15 comments
Krish Pillai
Krish Pillai

We know nothing about their culture. Maybe the rabbit was some sort of a mascot to them, or they kept them as pets! At least we still haven't conjured up horror stories of people eating their horses during the great depression!

John Boyd
John Boyd

Some anthropologists--especially European anthropologists--seem to have a pathological obsession with Neanderthal Man, and the need to feel disassociated from and superior to him.Now the tragic lot are prattling on about how he was too stupid to hunt rabbits. One imagines them-sitting around-telling caveman jokes. How pathetic.

Al Swearingen
Al Swearingen

Where is the imagination of these scientists? "Oh, there are no [insert item here] at this site, they must have [insert thoughtless conclusion here]. Did they take into account that local rabbit populations wax and wane? How about competition from other predators?  Your data is useless if you first can't even imagine things like:  Maybe rabbits were "sacred" to these people, like cows are today in some relatively hungry parts of the world. Maybe they crushed the bones and made good-luck powder, magic potion, or medicine. They could have burned rabbit bones, or buried them elsewhere, because teething Neanderthal toddlers tended to choke on them.  Maybe they gave smaller bones to the dogs, or ... Maybe they were sick and dying and couldn't hunt at all in the end.  It makes me angry that my tax dollars go towards creating stump-headeded foolishness like this. It makes me angry that "prestigious" journals like Nature will publish this crap and collect more of my tax dollars for universities to access it.  You boys and girls who call yourselves scientists should be required to hunt for your meals on even days and beg on the odd days. Maybe that would teach you something about the hard times you think these people went through. 

D W
D W

The mostly silly comments below all ignore the article's stated study showing absence of rabbit remains in Neanderthal diet prior to, and at the time of, their demise.

Guy Thompto
Guy Thompto

I believe my hypothesis is much stronger.  When "modern humans" moved into present day Europe, they felt very sorry for the Neanderthals.  Being kind-hearted, they started a food subsidy program that resulted in the Neanderthals losing their ability to self-sustain over a relatively short time.

As times became more difficult with the advent of continental glaciation, the "modern" humans cut back their free food program for those unfortunate Neanderthals. Their demise was predictable. The basic family units were shattered, the knowledge of how to self sustain had been lost and the Neanderthals were no more.

Julian Thompson
Julian Thompson

I am not a scientist, but I think we are all overlooking the obvious here. Neanderthals were bigger and not so smart as humans at the time. There is evidence that we mated and the human genome backs that up. But consider mans nature, I think in the past it is entirely feasible that we ate the Neanderthals. As reprehensible as it seems it is totally within our capability.

They were a good source of protein, the risk of spungiform encephalitis from cannibalization was none existent. We could have easily got together in social groups and hunted them and they us. The winners got the prize of continuation as a species. Just a theory but I think it is better than the can't hunt rabbits one.  

Bobby H
Bobby H

Once again we see an opinion by scientist with limited hunting eperience. I have chased down rabbits, walked up close and clubbed them, threw clubs at a distance, and cornered them in hollow trees and logs. At some point the dna and skeletal morphology evidence of admixing and absorbing the smaller Neanderthal population must be accepted.

Bill Morgan
Bill Morgan

It seems more likely that the Neanderthals did switch to rabbits and other lean meats like caribou.  The problem with a very lean meat diet, especially for someone who burns a lot of calories, is that you will starve to death even if you eat enough to fill your belly every day.  They would have needed to find another source with a higher fat content or found growing things with enough vegetable fat to eat to replace the missing needed complex carbohydrates, something hard to do in cold northern environments.

Ramsey A
Ramsey A

Neanderthals brains had not evolve to that extend to hunt for fast and small animals. With the concept of, "the cost in killing it is negligible, but the return is tiny" was acceptable due to large numbers of members in the group and the frequent huntings that were needed to cater for their daily needs. Hunting large animals were more appropriate not only for the meat, also for the large skin use as clothing, large bones for defensive purpose and decor in their caverns. In other words, there are more usage to kill a large animal. However, they did not foresee of the dwindling numbers of large animals at the time.

Tom Martin
Tom Martin

It's not hard to run down rabbits. Did it on Ft. Lewis, WA back in the 1980's with just one other soldier. Rabbits are fast, but only in short sprints. We just kept working a field, moving a rabbit back and forth, us doing little more than walking with a few jogs, and the rabbit eventually became so worn we reached down and grabbed it.

Indians could hunt deer with just knives in the same manner. Neanderthals were very skilled hunters.

The problems with acadamians writing articles with no practical experience and field craft is they come up with such silly notions.

Marc Archambault
Marc Archambault

I'm not sure if this is the case with other small game, but rabbits are known to have such lean meat that there is well defined side effect of eating it exclusively as a source of protein, due to the lack of fat: rabbit starvation.
Given the high caloric demands of Neandertals and the high fat content of the big game they normally hunted, it would seem probable that they would not have exploited such small game due it being unsuitable for their dietary needs and requiring a greater caloric expenditure to obtain compared to what it provided, resulting in a net loss. 

This hypothesis certainly seems plausible, if preliminary.  More data would have to be considered.   
It's also worth considering that a failure to exploit resources might have been just one among several factors leading to the decline of the species.
 

Edward Lobb
Edward Lobb

Assuming that Neanderthals did not utilize protective layers (clothing) is absurd. As a result of  the Neanderthal being overtaken during a genetically competitive cycle, in the currently accepted theorem, there seems to be an inability to explore the parameters of their reality as a viable tribal infrastructure, with rites that establish authority among the most capable hunters. The Buffalo Robe of Plains Indians should be a clear indication that pelts and hides were used extensively, both as signature of status, and as protection against the elements. If a creature can create a spear, it becomes quite reasonable to assume that same being would wrap their domiciles of bent branches in a wind deflecting shroud, or their bodies in wind resistant garments.

Marcos Toledo
Marcos Toledo

There was a arry of  resources they could have used rabbits weren't the only small to medium size prey they could hunted. They could eatten fish and other food from lakes and rivers and there a list of other animals they could have hunted. They were not stupid so they could figured out what other creatures to hunt.

Frank Yosso
Frank Yosso

They could've adapted to hunting rabbits, but with the rabbits there was probably not enough calories for survival. Modern humans probably needed less calories and will more skillful at hunting smaller prey. Therefore Neanderthals with the high calories required for survival could not adopt to small game.

George Barker
George Barker

@Tom Martin How many rabbits do you think you could have caught in that fashion?  Enough to provide each member of your family with an average of roughly  3,5000kcals/day, men with 5 - 6,000?  That's a lot of rabbits to catch by running around in a field.  And how many rabbits live in each field?  How long before you'd exhausted all the nearby fields of edible rabbits?  An average rabbit has about 1,000 calories in it, from what I can tell, and it isn't a very complete food source (look up "rabbit starvation" to know what I mean).  If I were a Neanderthal, I'm not sure I'd waste my time on rabbits, because I doubt, looking at energy balance, that there were enough of them around and easy-to-catch to make it worth my while.  10, 12 rabbits a day, plus the rest of the food you'd need to survive?  It doesn't seem practical.    

Share

Feed the World

  • How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest Photo Galleries

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »