When did we start hunting?

16 November 2008

Interview with

Preston Miracle

Neanderthal_hunting_sceneHelen - What sort of thing can we learn from the remains of animal bones that are left behind? What can it tell us about what people ate?

Preston - Well, the first trick of course is to sort out what animal it is the bones were coming from. For that we've got various kinds of comparative collections. So you can compare the old with the new and sort out the species, the age of animal perhaps, which part of it was preserved and the like. Moving on from that as a zooarchaeologist - an archaeologist studying these zoological remains - it's really looking at the patterns of modification from butchery or damage from hunting and cooking that you might have but also looking at the other animals that might have been using and collecting these animals and trying to unravel from say, ice age caves, which animals and which people would have been using these animals and bringing them to the site.

Helen - Are these animals still alive today or are they long-gone and extinct? Would we be quite surprised to see them strolling around our countryside today?

Preston - The farther back you go in time the more extinct animals you have. A lot of my work recently has been looking at remains about 130,000 years ago at the time of the last interglacial period: the last warm period much like our own. In these cases from the site in northern Croatia, the site of Krapina, there are very large woodland rhinos that have long been extinct that these Neanderthals were hunting as well as large bison, cave bears, beavers and a whole suite of different animal remains that were coming into these sites.

Helen - I know it's quite controversial and there are people arguing maybe both ways but how do you feel about how much those ancestral people were contributing to the demise of those species that are no longer with us?

Preston - Well it's very difficult to find direct evidence of just what happened to neanderthals and for that particular issue we're perhaps talking about something that happened about 30,000 years ago. It's much later in time than the particular set I'm talking about. My guess is that there is a fair amount of out competition by these new peoples. I think we can see from the ways in which the Neanderthals were managing the food and the ways in which they were hunting - they were extremely competent hunters - certainly in terms of their kinds of adaptations to the environment they were in very many ways successful in these ice age environments.

Helen - So looking at the hunting now, how can we reconstruct in this archaeological record that tells us about how our own ancestors went out hunting and what they actually used, the techniques they used?

Preston - One question that one faces is were they hunting these animals as opposed to just picking up dead carcasses and scavenging them. There's several lines of evidence one can look at. One is to look at what age of animal they were taking. Are they producing a structure of say very young and relatively old animals which is what you'd expect to be finding on the landscape itself if you were scavenging. We can see again from not just the site of Krapina but at many of these Neanderthal sites that they were actually targeting animals in their prime of life. It's a very good sign that somebody was actively taking these animals rather than just collecting the carcasses. When you get to the animals themselves, if you look at their pattern of were they taking meatier parts of the carcass, were they processing these meaty remains? It's a very good indication that you have some kind of hunting as opposed to scavenging going on.

Helen - What kind of tools were they using?

Preston - What we have preserved is for the most part the stone tools. Some of these would have been serving as some kind of points on thrust spears, various tools for cutting the hide and cutting up the meat. Many of these tools were most certainly used for making wooden tools and unfortunately we very rarely have wooden tools preserved.

Helen - Were they good at butchering? Had they figured out all that time ago how to deal with these animals? Do we have any evidence of skilled stonework?

Preston - I think quite clearly. You can see that they were making detailed use of the animal's anatomy to cut these rhino carcasses up into these small packets for transport. There's a pattern of burning on the bones. You get burning on the very ends of them, for example. This suggests they might have been roasted on the open fire. I think they were very competent in terms of their manipulation of these carcasses.

Helen - So they did cook the food. I think we're talking about that later on in the show. Whether or not we actually have to cook our food. Do we generally find that cooking the meat was something that's been around for a very long time?

Preston - I would think so. The evidence is fairly ephemeral for these time periods. Cooking is one of the real frontiers, I think, that we still are approaching and trying to get a better understanding of. Again, patterns of this kind of burning on the bones to me is very suggestive of some kind of roasting and cooking.

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