Some animals benefited from us as early as the Palaeolithic Age


Common ravens have been looking for human proximity since the Palaeolithic Age. © Milan Krasula/ iStock

We humans have close bonds with many animals. Our bond with dogs has existed for at least 15,000 years. But apparently our coexistence with the animal world began much earlier, as scientists have now found out. According to this, ravens, which fed on mammoth carcasses, sought proximity to our ancestors as early as 30,000 years ago. The people, in turn, used this circumstance to catch the ravens more easily, to use their feathers and to include them in their mythical world.

In today's Czech Moravia there are three unusual settlement areas from the Palaeolithic 30,000 years ago: Předmostí I, Pavlov I and Dolní Věstonice I. As expected, archaeologists found numerous huts, hearths and tools there. But they also uncovered hundreds of raven bones, mostly wing bones. What exactly this find means and what it says about the relationship between ravens and humans has been the subject of speculation for a long time.

Mammoth meat as a favorite food

In order to find out what these ravens were all about, researchers led by Chris Baumann from the University of Helsinki have now analyzed the bones of twelve common ravens found on site in the laboratory. By determining the proportions of nitrogen, carbon and sulfur isotopes contained in these bones, they were able to reconstruct the birds' diet. From the food these birds fed, they hoped, they might learn e why such a striking abundance of raven bones were discovered at Paleolithic sites.

In fact, the analyzes provided crucial information: "These Palaeolithic ravens fed mainly on the meat of large herbivores, often mammoths, similar to the people living at that time," reports Baumann. "We therefore assume that they were primarily attracted to mammoth carcasses in the vicinity of human camps." He and his colleagues therefore describe the behavior of the ravens as synanthropic. Synanthropes are wild animals that benefit from an ecosystem shared with humans. The ravens from Moravia show that this behavior already occurred more than 30,000 years ago.

synanthropic niche
Formation of a synanthropic niche for ravens and other animals in close proximity to Ice Age humans. © Chris Baumann

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But if ravens only approached humans to scavenge, why did they die in such large numbers in and around Paleolithic settlements? According to the researchers, it could be that the behavior of the birds made them easy prey for our ancestors. They caught some of the animals but probably seldom ate them. "On the remains of the raven bird there are only a few traces of human alteration, no cut marks and not a single burned specimen," explains Baumann's team. Since mainly wing bones were found, the scientists assume that the Stone Age people used the feathers of the ravens instead, but also included the birds in their culture and mythical world. It is not for nothing that ravens are now associated across cultures with death and the transition of life phases.

Research into the Czech ravens also dispels a widespread misconception about the Stone Age: "It is often assumed that early humans lived in and with practically untouched nature. However, that is very simplistic and not correct,” says Baumann. "We now know that humans influenced and permanently changed ecosystems through their behavior at least 30,000 years ago." One example of this is the leftover food left by humans, which once attracted small scavengers such as ravens and foxes, giving them "free" to our ancestors. served as a source of meat, fur and feathers.

Source: Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen; Specialist article: Nature Ecology and Evolution, doi: 10.1038/s41559-023-02107-8

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