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