Neandertals Hunted as Well as Humans, Study Says

Ann Parson
for National Geographic News
January 25, 2006
Through the years dozens of theories have sprung up about why Neandertals (often spelled "Neanderthals") went extinct approximately 30,000 years ago.

Those heavy-browed, big-boned hominids who inhabited Europe and parts of Asia for roughly 200,000 years may have met their demise for any number of reasons.

Perhaps they were cognitively limited or couldn't adapt to a changing climate or weren't good enough hunters to compete with modern humans. (See an interactive atlas of the human journey.)

Now a team of U.S. and Israeli anthropologists working at the Ortvale Klde Rockshelter, a significant Neanderthal-modern human site in the republic of Georgia, has helped to dispel one such hunch.

Drawing on evidence from animal remains—largely the bones of a mountain goat species called the Caucasian tur—the scientists have determined that Neandertals at the site were as capable hunters as the modern humans who later lived in the area.

"[Neandertal] hunting patterns were indistinguishable in terms of the species they targeted and the ages of the animals they killed," said lead study author Daniel Adler, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

The study is described in the February 2006 issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

"Wolves With Knives"

Neandertals learned the migration patterns and grazing habits of the tur and how to hunt the biggest and fastest of the animals, according to scientists.

"These data are joining an increasing body of evidence that Neanderthal extinction was not due to any lack of ability to hunt," said John Shea, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

"There was no difference between what Neanderthals and modern humans could do [as hunters]," said Shea, who was not involved in the study. "Both of them were wolves with knives."

Previously scientists believed that modern humans evolved from Neandertals, and Neandertals were seen as lesser.

That thinking has changed. Modern humans are no longer widely considered direct descendants of Neandertals. And the view of Neandertals as inferior beings is fading, Shea says.

Telltale Bones, Teeth

In order to reconstruct the behaviors of Neandertals and the mountain goats, Adler and his colleagues studied clues from thousands of Caucasian tur bones and teeth. This trove was excavated from late Middle to early Upper Palaeolitic soil layers that date from 50,000 to 20,000 years ago.

The team fitted these clues to a wealth of information about the Neandertals' social behavior, diet, and foraging activities, as well as the area's wildlife and those animals' habits and movements.

Impact fractures and cut marks on the bones, along with the absence of tooth marks, suggest to researchers that the animals were killed by Neandertals.

Examining tooth wear to determine the age of the animals, the scientists discovered that two-thirds of their specimens were prime-age adults—that is, large, fast and hard to capture.

Since tur can quickly climb steep, rocky slopes, they can be extremely elusive.

As a testament to the Neanderthals' savvy, it appears that they timed their hunts for late fall to early spring. It was then that whole herds of tur passed through the region, a bounty that allowed Neandertals to avoid expending energy chasing down solitary goats.

"What's really important to get across," Adler said, "is that Neandertals had a very intimate relationship with their environment. They knew when and where to be to take advantage of a seasonable abundance."

Their weapons may not have been as advanced as those of modern humans, yet the Neandertals' skills were comparable.

Mystery Remains

Adler concedes that the new study fails to shed any light on why Neandertals failed to survive.

"I think we could study that question until the cows come home, but I don't think we are ever going to answer it sufficiently," he said.

The paleoanthropologist and his colleagues nonetheless propose one explanation in their report: that Neandertals' limited populations and social networks resulted in less communication with neighboring groups.

In sharp contrast, humans that arrived after Neandertals exploited larger territories and had wider social networks.

Shea, the Stony Brook University archaeologist, says Neandertals might have fallen on hard times simply because they "were superpredators of the Ice Age."

It's risky being a top predator, he notes, because your existence depends on a stable amount of prey.

Overall, several factors might have done in the Neandertals, Shea says, just as big carnivores go extinct for many reasons.

"In the Middle East competition may have played a bigger role than in northern Europe, where climate change may have been more of a factor," he said.

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