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For hundreds of thousands of years, Neanderthals were the top predator in Europe. They could hunt and kill anything they wanted to eat. From small birds of prey up to the largest mammoths, the world was their meaty oyster. What was the Neanderthal hunting strategy that made them so successful? A large review of Neanderthal kill sites from across Europe reveals their secret was to kill them all and let god the tribe sort them out.

It turns out that Neanderthals weren’t picky about who or what they hunted. They didn’t focus on bringing down the largest, juiciest prey. Rather, they would wipe out entire herds. After everything was dead they would then go through and pick out the best kills, consuming them whilst leaving the rest to rot. As the authors of this research describe it, the Neanderthal hunting strategy was to “shoot first, ask questions later”.

Smart Neanderthal hunting strategy

Neanderthals were the top predator in Europe for generations. They were like a kid in a candy store, able to pick whatever they wanted. Evidence from their habitation sites shows they could take down the prime adults. These have the most meat on them but are also the hardest to kill. Modern wolves, for example, can rarely take them down. They have to focus on the sick and old.

So how were Neanderthals able to become such excellent hunters? It seems their trick was just to murder every animal they could get their hands on. Once everything was dead they could pick out the choicest chunks. The fact they were able to engage in such mass kills shows that they were even better hunters than we anticipated. Killing prime adults is impressive. Killing an entire herd, even more so. But how do we know they did this?

The evidence comes from several kill sites across Europe; from France to Poland. At these sites they hunted horses, rhinos, bison, and most other large mammals found in Europe at the time. We know these were kill sites because there are animals being butchered by Neanderthals here, but no evidence of long-term habitation. These were the locations animals were killed and processed before being carried back to camp. And they tell a rather grizzly story. The Neanderthals killed more than 100 animals at most of these sites. Once everything was dead they selected the prime individuals and carried them back to camp, leaving behind dozens of dead. Even the ones they chose to keep weren’t always carried away whole but cut up.

Things get even more interesting when you consider the geography of these kill sites. They indicate there was often a great deal of planning going in the hunt; allowing them to trap animals. Sometimes they forced them up against a cliff so they couldn’t flee. Other sites have short sight lines, which would have made it easy for the Neanderthals to sneak up on their prey. At Mauren, France, the Neanderthals started a stampeded; forcing Bison into a rock face behind them. When modern bison finds themselves in a similarly chaotic situation the results can be brutal, with young being trampled underfoot.

Wolves have nothing on the Neanderthal hunting strategy

Wolves have nothing on the Neanderthal hunting strategy

Humans did it too

Before PETA starts complaining about the Neanderthal hunting strategy and picketing the new finds from Bruniquel Cave, it’s worth noting they weren’t using a unique strategy. Several Upper Palaeolithic sites, from when modern humans first began migrating into Europe, reveal that we often adopted a similar technique of “murder everything and decide what’s tasty afterwards”.

All across Europe are sites where modern humans butchered large numbers of prey; typically red deer, reindeer, or some other ungulate. They seem to have found where the animals migrated and then made camp in their path for a few weeks. As the animals arrived they butchered everything they could get their hands on. Perhaps the best example is from La Madeleine in France, where humans seem to have staked out a river crossing herds of reindeer used. Humans then killed them en-masse whilst they were vulnerable in the river.

However, whilst they killed everything they came across their habitation sites tell a different story. Only the prime adults were taken back to camp. And even then, rarely were whole carcasses carried. They preferred their juicy legs; with the less meaty skull being left behind at the kill site.

Interestingly, this is also a practice that carried on into the modern day. Native Americans often  set up traps for their prey, allowing them to also kill entire herds. One common tactic for bison hunting was to start a stampede with fire; allowing them to drive an entire herd over a cliff. This trick was even recorded by Lewis and Clarke. Huge piles of bones have been found at the bottom of such kill sites. These skeletons also reveal that – much like their early European counterparts – these hunters were also very wasteful. They took the juicy haunch of the bison, along with their legs, but left much of the rest.

A (probably slightly exaggerated) depiction of Native Americans hunting Bison from the 1800s

A (probably slightly exaggerated) depiction of Native Americans hunting Bison from the 1800s

It seems that humans – whichever species they belong to – have always had eyes bigger than their stomachs.

Summary

Neanderthals hunting strategy was complex. They killed entire herds by starting a stampeded and driving them into traps. Modern humans have adopted similar strategies.

References

Steele, T.E., 2003. Using mortality profiles to infer behavior in the fossil record. Journal of Mammalogy, 84(2), pp.418-430.

Straus, L.G., 1987. Hunting in Late Upper Paleolithic Western Europe. In The Evolution of Human Hunting (pp. 147-176). Springer US.

White, M., Pettitt, P. and Schreve, D., 2016. Shoot first, ask questions later: Interpretative narratives of Neanderthal hunting. Quaternary Science Reviews, 140, pp.1-20.

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5 Comments

Nibbles · 16th June 2016 at 7:45 pm

Do you think it’s safe to say that prehistoric people generally had a lot of animals available to hunt and were well-nourished? A lot of modern foraging people have been pushed out into poor habitats that don’t support many animals and don’t seem to be as well-nourished as prehistoric people were. Do you agree?

    Adam Benton · 17th June 2016 at 1:06 pm

    It’s difficult to say as the fossils would only preserve long-term dietary deficits (which do seem to have happened, albeit rarely). Evidence of a group having a difficult season would be pretty absent; even though that could be more than enough to wipe them out. We can get some alternate evidence by looking at how much they exploited their prey. If they were wasteful, like in these examples, it’s a sign they probably were well fed. When they started to get desperate they would leave less to the crows. Sometimes even eating hooves and other low-nutrition parts.

    Based on all this, as far as we can tell you’re right. Generally they seem to have had had enough food to go around (although there are numerous exceptions to this; albeit still in the minority). However, does that actually mean they were well fed? We can’t say for sure.

Adrian · 17th June 2016 at 9:01 am

I understand that as late as the second half of the 19th century huge numbers of wild bison were killed solely for their tongues, considered a delicacy, and an abundant species of pigeon made extinct mainly for sport. Even now elephants and rhinos have a precarious future for being cursed with precious horns or tusks. Perhaps the Neanderthals’ hunting strategy isn’t so unusual when viewed in this context: Have weapons, will slaughter indiscriminately regardless of motive or actual need. Anyway, my question is whether there is any indication that the eventual lack of prey may have been a driver for the emergence of agriculture?

    Adam Benton · 17th June 2016 at 1:10 pm

    Ironically, it seems to be the opposite. Agriculture tended to first appear in regions where food was abundant. The fertile crescent earned its name for a reason. Some speculate that this might have actually been key for agriculture to form. It allowed for intensive exploitation, which might lead to some accidental domestication.

Derek McComiskey · 19th June 2016 at 2:50 pm

My brother lives in Canada – near a place called Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. I guess I know a bit more about it now. http://www.history.alberta.ca/headsmashedin/

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