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Left: Skull of a desert hare (Lepus capensis) from the Neolithic Chinese farming community in Yangjiesha, which was used in the study (S. Hu / Antiquity Publications Ltd).        Right top: Jade carving of a rabbit from a Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BC) tomb in Shaanxi Province. (P. Sheng / Antiquity Publications Ltd).        Right bottom: Bronze ornament for a chariot in the shape of a rabbit recovered from Yulin. (P. Sheng / Antiquity Publications Ltd).

Neolithic Chinese Had a Special Relationship with Hares

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Researchers in China have found evidence that Stone Age people had a close relationship with hares. While they never domesticated them as they did with dogs, it appears that humans changed the behaviors of these small mammals. The reasons for prehistoric human interaction with hares may be a result of cultural and religious beliefs, and this is allowing us to understand the world of Neolithic Chinese people.

Hares’ Diet Changed By Humans

A team of experts examined the remains of human and animal bones from the site of a Neolithic farming community at Yangjiesha in Northern China.  This is situated in the Loess Plateau, which was occupied by Stone Age farmers and played an important role in the early history of China. Archaeologists estimate that the site was occupied from about 2900-2800 BC. During the dig, the researcher found 54 bones that came from a desert hare, a species common in Eurasia.

Map of the study area in relation to Beijing, China. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Map of the study area in relation to Beijing, China. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Collagen was extracted from human, dog and hare bone samples, and they were subjected to isotope analysis. According to an Antiquity press release the analysis shows “different foods having different ratios of certain isotopes, which the body uses to build bones.” This allowed the team to determine the diet of the hares. Based on the levels of isotopes, they found that they mostly ate wild plants. However, it appears that the hares also consumed millet in large quantities over a long period, on average 20% of their diet consisted of this cereal.

It soon became clear that the hares’ diet was changed by the growing of millet in this region. The environment of this part of China is not suitable for rice growing. An Antiquity reports that “millet became the fuel behind key social developments in this area.”  It also changed the behaviors of animals, including the hares.

Aerial shot of the excavation site, where the Neolithic Chinese findings were made. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Aerial shot of the excavation site, where the Neolithic Chinese findings were made. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Relationship between the Neolithic Chinese and Hares

Antiquity reports that “human influence on ecological niches can drive rapid changes in the diet, behavior and evolutionary trajectories of small mammals.” The research team’s analysis revealed that the hares’ diet was at least supplemented by human agriculture produce. This suggests a commensal relationship, between hares and humans.

Antiquity states that this involved “animals benefiting from a relationship with humans, which neither benefits nor harms the latter.” This probably influenced the behavior of the hares, and they found a niche for themselves in the new environment created by the growing of millet in the area.

Experts examining bones from a prehistoric farming community have revealed the Neolithic Chinese and hares had a special relationship, leading to behavioral changes in the animals. Pictured: a brown hare in the grass. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Experts examining bones from a prehistoric farming community have revealed the Neolithic Chinese and hares had a special relationship, leading to behavioral changes in the animals. Pictured: a brown hare in the grass. ( Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Hares in Stone Age Religion

Hares have a long history of interactions with humans. Antiquity reports that “the earliest evidence for close human-hare interactions comes from the Early Copper Age (mid-fifth millennium BC).” The small mammals have been found in burials in Hungary and Sweden. However, no one knew for certain the nature of the relationship between early humans and the hares. The latest research from China indicates the hares began to gather around farming communities for food, and this led to the development of a symbiotic relationship.

The results from one hare were of special interest to the team. The isotope analysis found that the hare had consumed a great deal of millet. Its diet was similar to a domesticated pig from the period. While many hares were hunted at this time, this mammal was fed and possibly protected by the local humans. The research team leader, Pengfei Sheng from Fudan University, stated according to an Antiquity Press Statement , “we found a pet-like human-hare relationship beyond the hunter and the hunted in Neolithic China.”

Previous archaeological studies helped the experts to understand why humans interacted with hares. Antiquity reports “evidence for human-hare interactions reveals that humans assigned religious and spiritual significance to hares.” In the Han period and later, hares were considered to be auspicious. The small mammal is also considered auspicious in European folklore because of its associations with spring. This study demonstrates that Neolithic humans had a “varied and sustained relationship with hares” even though the mammal was never domesticated.

Pictorial stone relief with hare symbolism related to the Moon discovered from a tomb of the Han Dynasty (AD 92) in Yulin. (P. Sheng / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Pictorial stone relief with hare symbolism related to the Moon discovered from a tomb of the Han Dynasty (AD 92) in Yulin. (P. Sheng / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Insight into Prehistory

Based on the diet of the hares, it is apparent that millet production expanded in the Loess Plateau in the Neolithic period. It also shows that the Stone Age farmers were able to regularly produce food surpluses and were using relatively sophisticated agricultural techniques. Moreover, the analysis of hare remains, and other animals demonstrates how Stone Age agriculture impacted on the wildlife and environment.

What is unique about the study is that it helps us to understand something of our ancestors and how they interacted with animals and nature. They had commensal relationships with animals and also viewed them symbolically. It also shows that beliefs about hares as symbols of good fortune probably originated in prehistory. Neolithic peoples’ interactions with animals and their environments were complex, and in this regard, they are very much like modern people.

The full study is available online from Antiquity Publications from today at: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.36

Top image: Left: Skull of a desert hare (Lepus capensis) from the Neolithic Chinese farming community in Yangjiesha, which was used in the study (S. Hu / Antiquity Publications Ltd ).        Right top: Jade carving of a rabbit from a Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BC) tomb in Shaanxi Province. (P. Sheng / Antiquity Publications Ltd ).        Right bottom: Bronze ornament for a chariot in the shape of a rabbit recovered from Yulin. (P. Sheng / Antiquity Publications Ltd ).

By Ed Whelan

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