Reindeer teeth reveal Neanderthal's hunting strategies

Last Updated: Tue, May 17, 2011 08:40 hrs

A new study that analyzed the subtle chemical variations in reindeer teeth has found that the Neanderthal used sophisticated hunting tactics similar to the ones employed by modern humans.

Kate Britton, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen, and her colleagues were part of a team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig that studied the Jonzac Neanderthal site in France - a rock shelter believed to have been used over a long period of time as a hunting camp.

One of the oldest layers, from about 70,000 years ago, is exceptionally rich in adult reindeer bones. Britton wanted to find out more about these reindeer and their migratory behaviour to understand Neanderthal hunting strategies better. And the way to do that is to look at the teeth and their chemical composition.

The reindeer teeth are made of calcium, phosphorus, oxygen, strontium and other elements. But not all the atoms of each element are the same. Some atoms, or isotopes, are heavier than others and may have slightly different chemical properties.

"Strontium isotope analysis is an effective way of looking at animal and human movements in the past," said Britton.

Britton and colleagues collected second and third molars from three reindeer remains. The third molars develop a bit later than the second, "but given that both teeth develop incrementally, we can add up the isotope sequence from the two teeth to reconstruct a year in the life of the animal," she explains.

The results show that the three reindeer have similar strontium isotope patterns. The ratio between heavy and light strontium isotopes increases slightly towards the crown of the second molar and decreases towards the top of the third molar. The trend suggests that these reindeer moved from one area to another and back again while their teeth were developing, via a similar migration route.

The Neanderthal living at the time were probably aware of the reindeer migration patterns and planned their stays in Jonzac to make the most out of the moving herd.

"This sophisticated hunting behavior is something we see much later in the Upper Palaeolithic amongst modern human groups, and it's really fascinating to see that Neanderthals were employing similar strategies," concludes Britton.

The study has been published in the Journal of Human Evolution. (ANI)