Ecological Footprint of First Modern Humans in Europe Was Larger Than That of the Neandertals



Palaeontologist Mietje Germonpré holding a tooth of a mammoth calf found at Goyet Cave. (Photo: Thierry Hubin, RBINS)
Ecological Footprint of First Modern Humans in Europe Was Larger Than That of the Neandertals
post by
Reinout Verbeke

The first modern humans in Europe hunted mammoths more intensively than Neandertals did, a study on fossils from Belgian and German sites reveals.

Today, modern humans (Homo sapiens) are the only type of human left on earth. This was different during the Late Pleistocene when in Europe there were at least two species of humans: the Neandertals and us, the modern human.

The Neandertals are our closest relatives in the family of humans and they lived during a time period of several thousand years that was concurrent with the first modern humans before they went extinct. Possible reasons for the disappearance of Neandertals about 40,000 years ago are often based on a restricted dietary spectrum of the Neandertals and differing patterns of mobility for both types of humans.

In a new study, published in Scientic Reports, carried out at the University of Tübingen, an international team of scientists, including researchers of our Institute, presents stable isotope data from human and animal bone remains from the sites Troisième caverne of Goyet, Spy and Scladina in Belgium and Lommersum in Germany. The isotopic ratios of nitrogen, carbon and sulfur in bone collagen allowed the authors to draw conclusions about nutrition and aspects of mobility for both forms of humans.

Mainly Mammoth

The site Troisième caverne of Goyet yielded skeletal remains of the last Neandertals and very early modern humans in Europe. With these finds it offers a unique situation amongst all the sites that yielded human bone remains. At this location in Belgium we can reconstruct and compare the ecology of both types of humans in much detail. The surrounding site Spy yielded the youngest directly dated Neandertals and whose fossil remains were also analysed for this research.

This study shows that modern humans and Neandertals had very similar diets and it was not simply the case that Neandertals had a more restricted dietary spectrum. On their hunts both modern humans as well as Neandertals preferred megaherbivores. The mammoth was of significant importance and constituted the prime fraction of the dietary protein. It appears that at this time there was a fundamental “dietary trend” to specialize on large, cold adapted, mammals since other discovery sites in Europe point towards similar findings.

Larger Ecological Footprint

This study shows that during the time of the late Neandertals the ecosystem functioned relatively well and no significant ecological stress can be identified. These situation changed the moment when modern humans enter the European stage: from this point in time it is possible to detect ecological stress through the distribution of isotopic ratios among different herbivore species, in particular on the mammoth populations. These herd animals with relatively slow reproductive cycles presumably suffered from increased hunting pressure of modern humans, and horses tend to occupy their isotopic and ecological niche. The authors consider that the ecological footprint of modern humans was larger than that of the Neandertals, and that the human influence on the ecosystem became significantly greater when modern humans first arrived in Europe.

More Mobile

Moreover, the authors investigated aspects of mobility for three human fossil assemblages, the Neandertals from Spy, the Neandertals from Goyet and the modern humans from Goyet using the stable isotopic composition of sulphur in bone collagen. The study revealed distinct differences between each of these groups: the Neandertals from Spy can be clearly described as “locals”, who had hunted most of their prey within the vicinity of the sites in Belgium.

On the other hand, the Goyet Neandertals obtained the main portion of their prey outside the local ecosystem. They are rather classified as non-local and only had a small share, if any at all, of prey from the discovery site’s surroundings on their menu. Of interest here is that the skeletal remains of these Neandertals display evidence of intensive cannibalism. The majority of human bones exhibit cut marks and traces of defleshing. Some bones were also used as tools. This is in contrast with the “local” Neandertals of Spy whose bones were preserved in very complete and unfragmented stage of preservation. It remains unclear who the initiators of the cannibalistic activities were and also at present we cannot specifically describe where the Neandertals from Goyet originally came from, whether they died there or if the bones were transported there. It is remarkable however, that the victims of the cannibalism did not come from the local ecosystem.

Stronger Networks

Furthermore, it indicates that in the area the Neandertals as a group behaved very homogeneously. There were no large individual differences between members of a particular Neandertal group. On the other hand for the modern humans the individual mobility history seems to have differed considerably within a group. The authors presume that possibly more variable, vast and probably stronger (trans-) regional networks existed and also that more intensive resource utilization and a more efficient exchange of ideas and people were typical for the early modern humans of Europe at the time of the last Neandertals.

Perhaps these other concepts of landscape use or the awareness of geography in combination with social and cultural networks provided some deciding advantage s over the Neandertals. In any case, a broader dietary spectrum for modern humans than for Neandertals was not supported by this study.


Based a the press release of Universät Tübingen

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