Who let the hyaenas out? Do we mistake hyaena dens for hominin occupation sites?

Since the first discovery of Pleistocene mammal fauna with lithic tools, the role of carnivores as accumulators at archaeological sites, both modern and during the ice-age, has been well established. The analysis and identification of specific types of carnivore bone surface modification and accumulation patterns during the 1960-1980s advanced our knowledge and understanding of site formation processes and the evolution of the hominin dietary niche. Recent work by Samper Carro et al (2013) provides a detailed assessment of the macrofaunal assemblage from Cova del Gegant (Sitges, Spain), and in particular the role of cave hyaena in site fomartion. The rich faunal assemblage, including both herbivores and carnivores, together with a Neanderthal mandible fragment was used to argue for the primacy of human accumulation at this site.

The study focuses on two locations: Area Sg and Area J. The faunal analyses suggest the environment at the site was mixed with a combination of plains (equid) and forests (wild pig). The authors conducted an intensive study of all the species from the site reconstructing a Minimum Number of Individuals for each together with detailed body part profiles. Whilst there is some differentiation between the major species (Bos/Bison, horse, red deer) in terms of cranial/post-cranial survival, e.g. red deer has the largest cranial sample, there appears to be similarities in the preserved long bone portions. When plotted against the relative bone density the survival patterns are very similar with a greater proportion of denser elements preserved, particularly distal tibia and femur.

Throughout both areas at the site, carnivore modification is abundant (Area SG: 35%; Area J: 38%) and distributed across a range of elements, including low-nutritional bones such as podials and metapodials but also higher nutritional elements such as long bones and shoulder blades. The presence of these modifications on bovid and equid longbone mid-shaft fragments also suggests primary access to the meat from these elements. Other direct evidence for carnivore occupation and site usage was identified by coprolite remains in both areas.

Overall, this new study provides an excellent taphonomic approach to the understanding of site formation processes and agents at  Cova del Gegant. The presence of a Neanderthal mandible from the deposits does not provide sufficient evidence to link human activity with this faunal assemblage. In addition, the presence of isolated lithic flakes is also insufficient and widely reported on at various Pleistocene sites. Instead, the skeletal preservation and fragmentation alongside the extensive evidence for intensive bone surface modifications suggests that cave hyaena was the primary agent of faunal accumulation. The authors caution against using the mere presence of hominin fossils or lithic artefacts as proof of a causal link between the faunal assemblage and hominin behaviour.

Full reference: Samper Carro, S.C,. Martínez-Moreno, J. 2013.Who let the hyenas out? Taphonomic analysis of the faunal assemblage from GL-1 of Cova del Gegant (Sitges, Spain). Quaternary International.

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