Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Cultural Cannibalism as a Paleoeconomic System in the European Lower Pleistocene

Evidence of human cannibalism is currently found in many archaeological assemblages from different chronologies. The TD6 level of Gran Dolina (Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos), dated to more than 800 ky, is the oldest case known hitherto.

To date 165 remains have been recovered which correspond to a minimum of 11 individuals of different ages. The analysis of those cranial and postcranial remains of Homo antecessor has established the presence of several modifications of anthropic origin that are related to carcass exploitation. marks show that the corpses of these individuals were processed in keeping with the mimetic mode used with other mammal carcasses: skinning, defleshing, dismembering, evisceration and periosteum and marrow extraction. The Cutmarks, peeling and percussion butchery techniques exhibited in TD6 show the fundamental intention of obtaining meat and marrow and maximally exploiting nutrients. Once consumed, human and non-human remains were dumped, mixing them together along with lithic tools.

a) Some skeletal elements of Homo antecessor from level TD6 of Gran Dolina (Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos) - b) Female individual mandible of Homo antecessor recovered during the 2003 season - c) Microscopic detail of cut marks present in the scapula of Homo antecessor - d) Metacarpal of Homo antecessor with cut marks.

Cannibalism in TD6 cannot have been an isolated event since it has been documented in different archaeostratigraphic units. Sedimentary characteristics have allowed us to identify a succession of events in a dilated temporal sequence.

The abundant evidence of cannibalism, the number of individuals, their age profile and the archaeostratigraphic distribution all suggest that the motive for cannibalism in level TD6 was nutritional. The cannibalism has been included as a subsistence strategy of Homo antecessor. This strategy was incorporated as a successful behaviour against another group to compete for resources and territory. This type of cannibalism would have reaped a double benefit. On the one hand it served as a dietary purpose, while on the other it would have proved useful in defending the group’s territory from other human groups. Anthropophagy was practiced for a long period of time during which humans of one group consumed those of another. The represented ages of Homo antecessor (infants and juveniles) suggest that individuals that would have posed a lower risk for hunters and that would have been effective in the strategy of controlling competitors were sought out. The pyramid of mortality suggests exocannibalism as Homo antecessor would have been limiting the reproductive capabilities of the competitor group.

In conclusion, about a million years ago the hominids of level TD6 added cannibalism to their set of survival strategies as a way of competing with other human groups for available resources. This practice, accepted and included in their social system, is the oldest example of cultural cannibalism known to date.

For further information

Article "Cultural Cannibalism as a Paleoeconomic System in the European Lower Pleistocene" A. Rodríguez-Hidalgo" Carbonell, E et al. Current Anthropology, 51:539-549, August 2010


Isabel Cáceres

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The scavenger or the scavenged? Human consumption of hyaena during the Middle Peistocene on Maltravieso cave

Maltravieso cave is located in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula, in the environs of the city of Cáceres (Extremadura, Spain). This karstic cavity contains several archaeological levels and sites spanning a broad chronology, from the Middle Pleistocene to the Bronze Age.

One of the rooms which the cavity is composed of has a fill that has been dated between 117 and 183 kyr B.P. by uranium series. This room is known as “Sala de los Huesos” (Hall of Bones), because of its abundance of Quaternary mammal fossils. The species identified mostly belong to ungulates. The carnivores are abundant, above all hyaena specimens (Crocuta crocuta). The archaeological fieldwork conducted in this cavity provides evidence of the use of the room as a hyaena den with a low human impact, despite the presence of lithic tools and a dozen bones with cut marks.

Cutmarks documented on Crocuta crocuta ulna of Sala de los Huesos (Maltravieso cave) - Photo: Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo

Among the elements that have cut marks, some belong to the hyaenas themselves. In particular there is an adult hyaena ulna that shows cut marks on the anterior face, product of defleshing, and a hyaena innominate that shows cut marks and peeling, product of disarticulation of the femur.

The interaction between hyaenas and hominids during the Middle Pleistocene is one of the central topics in research on human evolution and has been approached from different disciplines. Taphonomic studies are the most likely ones to have contributed data to this issue since the 80s of the last century. The case of the Maltravieso cave shows a kind of interaction between hominids and hyaenas that had not previously been documented. Consumption of carnivores is not common during the Pleistocene, although some cases are known. However, consumption of hyaenas was unknown until now. The particularity of this case is also due to the fact that the archaeological context does not correspond with a hominid home base. Sala de los Huesos was primarily a hyaena den. Hence there are two possible interpretations: 1) the hyaena remains were processed by hominids outside the cavity and, once abandoned, they were transported by other hyaenas to the Sala de los Huesos den, or 2) the hominids processed in situ the remains of hyaena.

The latter hypothesis is suggestive, since it would imply the entry of hominids in the dens to search for resources, perhaps for carrion or maybe in the context of hyaena hunting.

The scientific research was carried out by Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, researcher of the Primeros Pobladores de Extremadura team and collaborator of the Institut Català de Paleoeoclogia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES) in collaboration with Palmira Saladié (IPHES) and Antoni Canals (URV).

For further information

Article “The scavenger or the scavenged?” A. Rodríguez-Hidalgo
Journal of Taphonomy, 1(2010): 75-76

Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo

Monday, April 05, 2010

A new Lower Pleistocene archeological site in Europe (Vallparadís, Barcelona, Spain)

In this article we present the discovery of a new late Lower Pleistocene archeological site: Vallparadís (Barcelona, Spain). This site provided a rich archeo-paleontological sequence dated from the upper boundary of the Jaramillo subchron to the early Middle Pleistocene. The archeological deposit of Vallparadís contained a main archeological layer with numerous lithic artifacts and a rich faunal assemblage, some of which with cut marks, that could indicate that hominins had primary access to carcasses.

Mandible of Rhinocerotidae with short and deep cut marks in the tongue side (Foto: Joan García and Kenneth Martínez / IPHES)

Electron spin resonance-uranium series (ESR-US), paleomagnetic analysis, and the biostratigraphic chronological data reinforce the proposal that hominins inhabited Europe during the late Matuyama chron. The archeological sequence provides key information on the successful adaptation of European hominins that preceded the Homo antecessor fossil population from Atapuerca and succeeded the finds from Fuente Nueva and Barranco León, in the Orce basin. Hence, Vallparadís enables us to close a major chronological gap in the early prehistory of Iberian Peninsula. According to the available data, is proposed that Mediterranean Western Europe was continuously occupied by hominids during the late Lower Pleistocene.

The most decisive factor of the European colonization was probably the carnivorous diet of these hominins rather than any cultural, ecological and even physical features. At certain times of the year, hominins must have depended on animal resources for subsistence. This would have entailed direct competition with other large European predators and scavengers of the time, as jaguars and hyenas. The Vallparadís human groups exploited a rich biological environment and adapted in a way that shows they were not selective in terms of exploitation the resources available. This broad adaptive strategy would not have required great technological developments. Therefore, is proposed that these first European hominins would have been a cohesive group of general predators that had primary access to preys and, as with large predators, occupied a position at the top of the food chain.

The authors contributed to the article as follows: K.M. and J.G. designed research; K.M., J.G., and E.C. performed research; K.M., J.G., E.C., J.A., J.-J.B., H.-A.B., F.B., I.C., M.D., C.F., M.G., and R.H. analyzed data; and K.M. and J.G. wrote the paper.

For more information:

Martínez, K., Garcia, J., Carbonell, E., Agustí, J., Bahain, J.-J., Blain, H.-A., Burjachs, F., Càceres, I., Duval, M., Falguères, Ch., Gómez, M., and Huguet, H. (2010). “A new Lower Pleistocene archeological site in Europe (Vallparadís, Barcelona, Spain)”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(13): 5762-5767.


Joan Garcia Garriga
Area of Prehistory (Rovira i Virgili University) & Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES)

Kenneth Martínez Molina
Area of Prehistory (Rovira i Virgili University) & Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES)