Neandertals, Hyenas Fought for Caves, Food, Study Says

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
May 3, 2005
Neandertals not only fought for their lives against hyenas and other large predators but also battled with them for caves and food.

That's the conclusion drawn by scientists who found a 41,000-year-old Neandertal leg bone in a European cave littered with bones. The bones had been gnawed on by large carnivores or showed the cut marks of stone tools—or both.

The debris provides evidence that Neandertals (also spelled Neanderthals) and large carnivores, mostly hyenas, both used the Les Rochers-de-Villeneuve cave in central western France for shelter.

"The Neandertals and large carnivores occupied the cave in rapid succession," said Erik Trinkaus, a paleoanthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. "We have the bones of herbivores like bison and deer being chewed or processed by both Neandertals and hyenas, and they're both only going to do that if the meat is reasonably fresh, and if there's still something on there to get off."

"We have this idea that once humans became reasonably successful as hunters that they walked with impunity on the landscape, and that's just not so," Trinkaus said. "I'm not saying they were having fights at the mouths of caves with the hyenas, but I'm sure there were plenty of times when the hyenas came and, not being stupid, the Neandertals said 'see ya later, guys.'"

The human femur found in the cave had been gnawed on, probably by hyenas, but there is no way of knowing whether the Neandertal was a victim of the hyenas, or a human body that the hyenas scavenged.

"Any time during the middle Paleolithic and even the upper Paleolithic (time periods), when humans aren't living in caves, there's some kind of cave predator living in there; either cave bear or cave hyena or something," said Fred Smith, a paleontologist at Loyola University Chicago. "I'm sure that Neanderthals and hyenas would have competed for good cave sites."

Around 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, Neandertals and modern humans were beginning to dominate the landscape.

"Once you get well into the upper Paleolithic, you'll find that there's a clear separation in most cases of human debris and the debris from carnivores [animals that eat only meat]," Trinkaus said.

Biology of the Femur

The newfound thighbone may also reveal more than the struggle between Neandertals and carnivores during the middle Paleolithic period (100,000 to 40,000 years ago). According to the researchers, the femur shows signs that Neandertals made some surprising advances prior to the arrival of modern humans in Europe.

"On the one hand, the Neandertals are still competing, and not all that effectively, with large carnivores for space and resources," Trinkaus said. "On the other hand, we're starting to see evidence of changes in their behavioral pattern that are taking place within the late middle Paleolithic being reflected in their biology."

DNA testing and the shape of the femur found in the cave show that the bone belonged to a late adolescent or adult Neandertal. The thickness of the bone and other aspects of its shape and form suggest that a shift in weight-bearing patterns was taking place.

"The shafts of long bones respond to the kinds of mechanical stresses that they're subjected to," Trinkaus said. "What we're looking at here is greater reinforcement in the front-to-back direction."

This reinforcement is associated with greater mobility, particularly for hunter-gatherers, he says.

"You see them [femurs] very much exaggerated in early modern humans around 25,000 years ago, at a time, certainly in Europe, when people were very mobile," he said. "And then by 15,000 years ago, when for a variety of reasons, people are becoming considerably less mobile and their territories are becoming smaller, we see a decrease in this front-to-back reinforcement, so its something that's plastic [changeable], it's not a genetic trait."

Biomechanical studies of how bones respond to stresses raise some questions about this interpretation.

"Using bone cross section shapes to infer that Neanderthals behaved more like modern humans is quite a leap," said Daniel Lieberman, a physical anthropologist at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

"These kinds of inferences are based on a biomechanical model that has been shown to have limitations. If you get a fossil bone, you try to get as much information out of it as you can. But a bone is just a bone, and trying to infer function from form is a very difficult thing in morphology," he said. Morphology is the study of the forms and structures of plants and animals.

Landscape Use

The question of how modern humans and Neandertals used the landscape is hotly debated.

One school of thought holds that modern humans migrating into Europe around 40,000 years ago were highly mobile. They shifted campsites on a seasonal basis, moving as different resources became available in different places. In this scenario, once Neandertals found a prime site, they settled in, stayed for long periods of time and exploited the local resources as they became available.

But the new study, published in the new issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that Neandertals were far more mobile and capable of moving from strictly local resource utilization to a more regional perspective as they expanded their territories.

"What we have evidence for here, and it's certainly not the only evidence, is that late Neandertals were behaviorally evolving in the direction that we see more full blown with modern humans in the upper Paleolithic," said Trinkaus, one of the co-authors of the study. "And this was clearly starting well before there were any modern humans around Europe."

"People tend to look at it in terms of Neandertals and their biology versus modern humans and their biology. And what we're really looking at are changes in the cultural adaptations of these hunter-gatherers," Trinkaus said. "And the cultural advances are taking place semi-independently of who is involved or whether they're Neandertals or modern humans."

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