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."

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