Beaver hunting 400,000 years ago

Roar-tailed rodents were apparently targeted by Middle Pleistocene humans in what is now Germany. © Christopher Jones/iStock

Not only specialized in big game hunting: A study shows that the early human inhabitants of what is now Germany used a broader range of prey: They apparently also systematically hunted beavers. This emerges from the examination of a large rodent bone collection that was discovered in Thuringia. Characteristic cut marks on the remains, which are around 400,000 years old, show that the animals were slaughtered and skinned by human beings. According to the findings, the Ice Age hunters apparently specifically targeted young specimens that were fat and fully grown but still inexperienced, the researchers report.

What did the archaic human forms that lived in Europe during the last ice age feed on? “Until now, the doctrine was that they fed primarily on large game until around 50,000 years ago and that this could have represented an important difference to the flexible feeding strategies of modern humans,” says lead author Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser from the Johannes Gutenberg Institute. University of Mainz. At least as far as the Neanderthals are concerned, there are now indications that they also had a broader range of food than long assumed. However, it is unclear to what extent their ancestors from the Middle Pleistocene used smaller animals as resources in addition to large game. Only the use of large mammals such as wild cattle and rhinos by the hominins of this era is proven based on cut marks on bones.

How wide was the range of prey?

But it stands to reason that this gives a skewed impression of the diet. According to Gaudzinski-Windheuser, the reason for this is simple: “The remains of large animals from this period are generally much better preserved than those of small animals.” In the current case, however, we are talking about finds in the second category from the Middle Pleistocene era. It is a collection of beaver bones that were excavated over the last few years at a site near Bilzingsleben in Thuringia. In total there are 2,496 bones and teeth, which probably come from a total of 94 beavers. According to the dating, they lived around 400,000 years ago in the area that was then characterized by water.

Given the surprisingly extensive accumulation of beaver remains, scientists asked themselves whether the animals had died naturally. A strange aspect was that, based on the characteristics of the bones and teeth, the majority of them were quite young animals. So perhaps human beings had a hand in it? To find out more, Gaudzinski-Windheuser and her colleagues have now examined the bones using various magnification techniques to reveal possible subtle traces of processing.

Characteristic scratches from stone tools

As they report, they actually identified numerous cut marks from stone tools on the bones. It stands to reason that they were used to remove meat. In some cases, the positions of the cut marks indicate that they could have served to remove the animal's fur. Overall, the traces identified suggest that the carcasses were intensively used, according to the researchers. “It is also interesting that the remains in Bilzingsleben are mainly bones of young, adult beavers,” says Gaudzinski-Windheuser. As she explains, this suggests that people back then specifically hunted these adult but still inexperienced animals. The possible explanation was that certain hunting strategies made them easier to capture.

In principle, it seems clear that the hunt for the rodents, which weigh up to around 20 kilograms, could have been worthwhile. The beaver's body contains a lot of energy-rich fat that the people of the Middle Pleistocene could certainly have put to good use. In addition, its thick and warm fur could have been sought after. There is even a possible third aspect: the rodents produce a secretion called castoreum. It has been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times and can also be used as a lure when hunting various animals.

How exactly human beings used the beaver 400,000 years ago remains unclear, but the study results have now made it clear: “Even among the archaic humans in Middle Pleistocene Europe, there was greater diversity in their choice of prey than is generally assumed,” they summarize the scientists.

Source: Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, specialist article: Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-46956-6

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