In a previous post, the hunting strategies of Neanderthals 125,000 years by were discussed, and in this post we’ll be taking a look at a paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, by Dr. Ana Belén Marín Arroyo, partly because she too cites an interestlaredo in discerning why Neanderthals became extinct, and partly because the paper is fully accessible, thus enabling a greater breadth of discussion than just the abstract alone would permit:


By defining the area of economic influence associated with a given archaeological site, valuable information can be obtained about human occupation patterns, whilst differentiation of the surrounding biotopes facilitates research into the adaptive relationship between subsistence strategy and resource availability. Despite the inherent potential of this type of analysis, its development comes up against important conceptual and methodological limitations.

The present article analyses the possibility of using optimal foraging theory, as representative of the hunting behaviour of hunter–gatherer groups, in the accurate objective estimation of the catchment areas of a site. The obtained results are applied to the study of the reasons behind the geographical site specialisations observed in eastern Cantabria, Spain during the Magdalenian.

The focus of this paper is on the post-Last Glacial Maximum era known as the Magdalenian, defined in this paper as 14–10 kya BP, many thousands of years after the last traces of European Neanderthals appear in the fossil or artefactual record, but in common with Professor Bent Sørensen’s paper, account is taken of the energy expended by hunters in pursuit of specific animals in distinct ecological niches, balanced against the amount of calorific energy that could be physically transported back to a centralised camp, where the non-hunting contingent of the forager communities would be waiting. As far as I can tell, however, this paper takes no account of other resources from hunted animals that would have been of calorific benefit to these Magdalenian people, such as hides and fur, sinew and other body parts, which amongst other considerations, would have been essential to keep them clothed in the day, and warm at night.

But as a study based purely on how Magdalenian people might have serviced various carnivorous elements of their diet, in this case red deer and ibex whose butchered remains appear in the archaeological record, this paper is very well worth reading, especially as rather than merely impose imagined hunting tactics on extinct people living in the mountainous regions of Palaeolithic Eastern Cantabria, northern Iberia, ethnographic studies involving the modern-day Hadza people of Tanzania have also been employed. Obviously, the two scenarios cannot be direct parallels of one another, particularly when the different climatic conditions are factored in, but we are at least afforded potential insights into hunting strategies, butchery and transport of meat. Key to this study is the Central Place Foraging Prey Choice Model, which is discussed here:

Based on the principles established in the Central Place Foraging Patch Choice Model ((Orians and Pearson, 1979) and (Cannon, 2003) formulated his Central Place Foraging Prey Choice Model, which aimed to solve the problem of which species should be hunted and in what order, and which anatomical parts should be transported to base camps to maximise the output: input ratios of energy, usually measured usually in Kcal. Thus, in addition to a logical preference for species providing a higher caloric yield in relation to calories expended in their acquisition, which usually results in larger catchment areas for large prey, the model can also predict aspects of the butchery process at kill sites, taking into account the type of prey obtained and the distance from the base camp. The greater the distance to the kill site, the more intense the butchery will be, in order to maximise the energetic contribution of the load being transported.

In order to assess how profitable it is to invest time in butchering an animal, Cannon (2003) defines a theoretical processing function that relates the additional time used to butcher the carcass once the prey is in an appropriate condition for its transport (i.e., after handling time) with the energy that can be transported to the base camp. In all cases, it is assumed that a physical limit for transport exists where the animal cannot be carried away whole, and therefore the more useful parts must be chosen.

This function begins with an initial value, equal to the maximum energy that can be transported without any butchering, decreasing monotonically afterwards, because the butchery process will commence with the most productive parts, those that offer the greatest amount of meat for the least processing time ([Bunn et al., 1988], [Monahan, 1998], [O’Connell et al., 1988], [O’Connell et al., 1989] and [O’Connell et al., 1990]), and will finish with the high cost/low yield extraction of bone marrow. In the case of small prey, however, the processing function is reduced to a single point, equivalent to the total caloric yield of the animal, which can be carried whole to the camp. In summary, this is basically an up-date for ungulate-hunting of the model developed by Metcalfe and Barlow (1992) for nut-gathering.Bunn et al., 1988 H.T. Bunn, L.E. Bartram and E.M. Kroll, Variability in bone assemblage formation from Hadza hunting, scavenging, and carcass processing, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 7 (4) (1988), pp. 412–457. Abstract | Article | PDF (6019 K) | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (74)

As I mentioned earlier, I think this study would have benefited by at least referring to other energy benefits derived from prey animals such as maintenance of optimal body heat to further conserve energy in humans, but what I liked about this paper was the exploration of the bio-geographical context in which the Magdalenian hunters would have mounted their expeditions, with particular reference made to steepness of slopes, vegetation and tree cover, and calculations that would have determined over what distances it would have been more profitable to hunt ibex instead of red deer. Interesting too to note that there was probably a seasonal divide between coastal and mountain areas as the foragers of eastern Cantabria were at the mercy of the elements and the effect they took on the floral and faunal resources available to them at different times of the year.

Mention too is made of territoriality, and there must have been occasions when hunting groups from different areas came into contact, and even conflict with one another, a point that is crucial for understanding the pressures brought to bear on the existing Neanderthal population of Europe, when they for the first time began to experience direct and increasing competition for their resources at the time of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition around 40 kya BP , a topic which will be the subject of a forthcoming post regarding competitive exclusion.

On a final note, I’d like to point readers towards the references at the end of this paper, some of which are also free to access – I imagine for example, that The Molecular Dissection of mtDNA Haplogroup H Confirms That the Franco-Cantabrian Glacial Refuge Was a Major Source for the European Gene Pool (PDF) byAchilli et al 2004,  would be a case in point.

Reference: The Use of Optimal Foraging Theory to Estimate Late Glacial Site Catchment Areas from a Central Place: The Case of eastern Cantabria, Spain by Ana Belén Marín Arroyo, Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, The Henry Wellcome Building, Fitzwilliam Street, CB2 1QH Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Journal of Anthropological Archaeology
Volume 28, Issue 1, March 2009, Pages 27-36,