Wednesday 6 March 2013

Rabbits? Did Rabbits Kill the Neanderthals? LMFAO!

Be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits (after Warner Brothers, with thanks in advance).
 The Subversive Archaeologist news ticker comes through for me again! This just in...
Did Rabbits Kill the Neanderthals?
At first I thought I was experiencing a little déjà vu with a 70s flavour. And so it was, with a touch of nostalgia I hied meself over to YouTube and found this clip. In the context of today's subject, you have to watch it. It's only 2:08 and it's really, really funny. So, indulge me, won't you? You won't regret it!!!! The scene is a crucial turning point in the epic Monte Python and the Holy Grail. [You great Scottish Git! has to  be my favourite line.]

Allrighty. Back to a semblance of reality, and the matter at hand---real killer rabbits. Or not.

From the History Channel online [if that's not a technological oxymoron]---just slightly further north than Fox News when it comes to "truthiness,"---comes this tale of the cottontails of Pleistocene Europe. The scientist in question is one John Fa, of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Jersey.

I have to admit that, after reading Jennie Cohen's History Channel article, I was creased over laughing. Here's why. The Neanderthals are introduced in this way:
What happened to the Neanderthals? Our close evolutionary cousins dominated Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia for hundreds of thousands of years before dying out an estimated 30,000 years ago. Along the way, the stocky hominins developed a rich culture, stalked many a wooly mammoth and rubbed elbows with the ancestors of today’s Homo sapiens [emphasis added]. 
And, by contrast with the rabbit-ready modern humans that entered Europe around 40 kyr ago, as the global climate deteriorated into what became the Last Glacial Maximum, we're told that the
Neanderthals, meanwhile, were strictly “large game specialists,” the researchers postulate. Perhaps they didn’t have the right body type for scampering after small, speedy critters like rabbits—or maybe they simply, stubbornly refused to eat Thumper and his adorable friends. As a result, they succumbed to famine while their cousins feasted. “The specialized diet of Neanderthals consisting of large and medium-sized terrestrial herbivores may have made them more vulnerable at a time when these animals disappeared or became scarce,” the scientists write.
And so it was with some trepidation that I found the source and had a read. Published online on February 17, this year: John E. Fa, et. al., "Rabbits and hominin survival in Iberia." Journal of Human Evolution 10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.01.002, 2013. [However did my Dunland crows miss this one?] 

In brief, Fa et al. compile observations from more than 300 sites across Europe, of which only 104 had rabbit remains throughout the temporal span---from 300,000 right through to the Mesolithic, at around 9,000 years. They found that not only did rabbits comprise significantly smaller proportions in the Mousterian components than in all of the components representing modern human activity, but also the majority of rabbit remains from Mousterian contexts has been identified as part of the non-Neanderthal accumulations.

So, the weight of evidence appears to support the thesis that Neanderthals didn't chase rabbits, and that we moderns did. Thus, as climate deteriorated in Europe the large mammals on which the Neanderthals are said to have specialized became by degrees less plentiful, while rabbits were able to persist, and in their usual large numbers. How did the Neanderthals make such a cognitive blunder??? That is still an open empirical question. However Fa et al. go some way toward making sense of it.

Some things never change!
(Thanks, again, in advance, to Warner Brothers)
And, while Fa, et al. is not the 'smoking gun' when it comes to identifying THE process that eased the Neanderthals out of the evolutionary picture, their work does act as a counterpoint to the much-heralded conclusions of, for example, Mary Stiner, that the Neanderthals were in fact capable big-game hunters, and therefore pretty darned good at the survival game. Against that, one might see Fa et al. as a work that exposes the heretofore unrealized 'chink in the armour' of the Neanderthals. That those Neanderthals appear not to have been capable of extracting the maximum from a given biome, especially ignoring as readily available, and as prolific a quarry as rabbits, should be a red flag to palaeoanthropologists and palaeolithic archaeologists. Neanderthals might have been big and strong, but they clearly weren't 'thinking' straight when it came to survival in the late Pleistocene of Europe.

Just a suggestion. The title of the History Channel piece---"Did Rabbits Kill the Neanderthals?"---should be rewritten as "Neanderthals couldn't kill rabbits."

*Thanks to Spawn of Endra for reminding me that the Bugs Bunny cartoons were the intellectual property of Warner Bros, and not Walt Disney, as I originally posted. My big bad.

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  1. Rob, you've overlooked the obvious conclusion that George Frison was right: hunting only includes killing "big things". Obviously our Neandertal cousins were quintessential "Real Men" who didn't eat quiche or waste time hunting bunnies.

  2. That's pretty funny, Dave. I see the years haven't yet turned your mind to mush! Congratulations. And thanks for hangin' out with me.

  3. Interesting Neanderthal article you might want to check out.


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