Neanderthals cleared of herding mammoth over cliff edge
It has long been believed that the piles of mammoth and woolly rhino bones found piled up at the foot of a cliff in Jersey was the result of Neanderthals driving the animals to their deaths over the edge for food. Jersey was, after all, a major site for Neanderthal habitation. However, new evidence published in the journal Antiquity suggests that it would have been impossible for the Neanderthals to herd the mammoth off the cliff, not least because of the plateau that ends the cliff edge was so high and rocky that mammoth and other weighty animals would never have ventured up there.
"It was in the 70s and 80s that the hypothesis was put forward that Neanderthals were grouping together to drive herds of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinos off the cliffs and butchering them," said Dr Geoff Smith, an analyst for Jersey Archive. "No-one has ever really questioned it so we are going back, re-assessing and re-analysing and see if we can come up with new information to come up with more support or even refute it slightly.”
The piles of bones are a major feature at La Cotte de St Brelade on Jersey , a British Crown dependency just off the coast of Normandy, France. La Cotte is one of the most spectacular Neanderthal sites in Europe - hundreds of thousands of stone tools and animal bone fragments have been uncovered at the Jersey site where Neanderthals lived on and off for around 200,000 years.
One of the reasons that led to the cliff hypothesis is that the animal bones showed signs of severe trauma. The legs were badly broken, something that would be incredibly difficult for people to do – mammoth bones are very elastic and very tough. The injuries were consistent with the scenario of the animal falling from a great height and landing on its feet.
It is thought Neanderthals would drive mammoth off the edge of cliffs. Photo credit: Jersey Heritage
To examine this perspective, researchers drew on a survey of the seabed that stretches away from the cliff to reconstruct the landscape when the Neanderthals lived there. They found that the plateau that ends at the cliff edge was so rocky and uneven that it would have been virtually impossible for mammoths to get up there. Even if the creatures had clambered so high, the Neanderthals would have had to chase them down a steep dip and back up the other side long before the animals reached the cliff edge and plunged to their doom.
"I can't imagine a way in which Neanderthals would have been able to force mammoths down this slope and then up again before they even got to the edge of the headland," said Beccy Scott, an archaeologist at the British Museum. "And they're unlikely to have got up there in the first place."
Some other features of the bones piles were also at odds with the cliff perspective. The bones heaps appeared to be deliberately arranged. The first bone heap contained the remains, mainly skulls and ribs, of nine mammoths and a rhinoceros. Another bone heaps consisted of mainly limbs, pelvic bones and scapulae of at least 8 mammoths and three rhinoceros. Could the bone heaps reflect a butchering site instead?
Neanderthals living there may have brought the bones there after hunts, or from scavenged carcasses, and used them for food, heating and even building shelters. Older sediments at the site are rich with burnt bone and charcoal, suggesting the bones were used as fuel. The heaps of bones were preserved when Neanderthals last abandoned the site, and a fine dust of silt blew over and preserved the remains.
Bones from archaeological sites show that nothing of the animal was wasted. Hunters could make needles, awls and spear tips from animal bones. The sinews, gut and tendons were used to bind stone tools to wooden hafts. The stomach became a useful bag for carrying blood or water. The fat may have been used to waterproof skin boots and other clothing. Grease may have been smeared over the skin to insulate against the cold or to protect from insects. Hair, which has strong fibres, were twisted together to make thread, and the animal skins were used to make bags, as well as clothes, shoes, blankets, and shelter.
The results of the latest research appear compelling. However, if the Neanderthals didn’t herd the mammoth over the cliffs, the question remains as to how the bones came to be snapped in pieces, something that would have been virtually impossible for the Neanderthals to do.
Featured image: Neanderthal and mammoth graphic. Image source .