Identifying the unidentified fauna enhances insights into hominin subsistence strategies during the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition

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  • Virginie Sinet-Mathiot
  • William Rendu
  • Teresa E. Steele
  • Rosen Spasov
  • Stéphane Madelaine
  • Sylvain Renou
  • Marie Cécile Soulier
  • Naomi L. Martisius
  • Vera Aldeias
  • Elena Endarova
  • Paul Goldberg
  • Shannon J. P. McPherron
  • Zeljko Rezek
  • Dennis Sandgathe
  • Nikolay Sirakov
  • Svoboda Sirakova
  • Marie Soressi
  • Tsenka Tsanova
  • Alain Turq
  • Jean-Jacques Hublin
  • Geoff M. Smith

Understanding Palaeolithic hominin subsistence strategies requires the comprehensive taxonomic identification of faunal remains. The high fragmentation of Late Pleistocene faunal assemblages often prevents proper taxonomic identification based on bone morphology. It has been assumed that the morphologically unidentifiable component of the faunal assemblage would reflect the taxonomic abundances of the morphologically identified portion. In this study, we analyse three faunal datasets covering the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition (MUPT) at Bacho Kiro Cave (Bulgaria) and Les Cottés and La Ferrassie (France) with the application of collagen type I peptide mass fingerprinting (ZooMS). Our results emphasise that the fragmented component of Palaeolithic bone assemblages can differ significantly from the morphologically identifiable component. We obtain contrasting identification rates between taxa resulting in an overrepresentation of morphologically identified reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) and an underrepresentation of aurochs/bison (Bos/Bison) and horse/European ass (Equus) at Les Cottés and La Ferrassie. Together with an increase in the relative diversity of the faunal composition, these results have implications for the interpretation of subsistence strategies during a period of possible interaction between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens in Europe. Furthermore, shifts in faunal community composition and in carnivore activity suggest a change in the interaction between humans and carnivores across the MUPT and indicate a possible difference in site use between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. The combined use of traditional and biomolecular methods allows (zoo)archaeologists to tackle some of the methodological limits commonly faced during the morphological assessment of Palaeolithic bone assemblages.

Original languageEnglish
Article number139
JournalArchaeological and Anthropological Sciences
Issue number9
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Open Access funding enabled and organized by Projekt DEAL. This study was funded by the Max Planck Society. T.E.S. received travel support through University of California, Davis’ Small Grants in Aid of Research. M.S. is funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO; VI.C.191.070). F.W. received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 948365). G.M.S. is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie scheme (grant agreement no. 101027850). N.L.M. was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF-SBE; Award ID: 2004818). V. Aldeias is funded by the European Union (ERC, MATRIX project nº101041245).

Funding Information:
We would like to thank Harold Dibble for co-directing the excavation at La Ferrassie and for his precious contribution during the early stages of this project. We would like to thank Jean-Jacques Cleyet Merle, Catherine Cretin, and Bernard Nicolas for facilitating access to the La Ferrassie fauna stored at the Musée National de Préhistoire (Les Eyzies, France). We thank Prof. Nikolay Spassov, the National Archaeological Institute and the National Museum of Natural History from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (Sofia, Bulgaria), and the Museum of History in Dryanovo for supporting the Bacho Kiro Cave fieldwork and storage of the faunal collection from Bacho Kiro Cave. Thanks are due to Jakob Hansen and Lindsey Paskulin for the technical assistance during sampling. We thank the IZI Fraunhofer (Leipzig, Germany), Stefan Kalkhof, and Johannes Schmidt for providing access to the MALDI-TOF MS instrument. We thank Karen Ruebens and members of the Welker group, Ragnheiður Diljá Ásmundsdóttir, Zandra Fagernäs, Jakob Hansen, Louise Le Meillour, Dorothea Mylopotamitaki, and Huan Xia for the comments on a previous version of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, The Author(s).

    Research areas

  • Bone surface modification, Late Pleistocene, Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition, Subsistence behaviour, Zooarchaeology, ZooMS

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