The role of fatty acids in Palaeolithic diet: New evidence from frozen Mammoth carcasses.

Many studies into Palaeolithic diet, both traditional zooarchaeological analysis and isotope studies, emphasise the importance of meat to past hominin diet. However, these frequently encounter the problem of explaining how these past communities overcame problems related to the consumption of large quantities of meat. Whilst it is one of the worst kept secrets in Palaeolithic archaeology that plant resources were also exploited, and this has begun to be rectified through the analysis of newly identified plant resources and other new research into dental calculus. It has been suggested that to overcome these problems hominins, particularly within the colder northern European climates, could have focussed on the fat from various large herbivores, particularly mammoths. Such data appears to have been confirmed by new analysis of the fat content from frozen carcasses recovered in Siberia, and recently published in PLOS One.

The new research by these authors compares the fat content or profiles from two famous mammoth calves from Siberia ‘Yuka’ and ‘‘Lyuba’’ and compares these with the profiles from Holocene horses and bovids. In particular, the researchers were interested in the quantity of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids within all these animals. Thus the research aimed to answer the questions: how did the fat profiles of these species help these animals survive in the cold high Arctic? And were these animals a suitable source of fat for hominin populations (during the Palaeolithic and Neolithic)?

The authors successfully extracted fatty acids from all the individuals studied but noted some degradation and contamination of the samples, though considering the time range these appeared minimal. Interestingly, the fat profile of the mammoths is similar to modern populations of horse from Yakutian that during the winter months maintain a semi-hibernation state. That is, they undertake minimal feeding activity and maintain a sleeping position. The authors suggest that this could also have been the case for mammoth populations.

The physiological requirements of the mammoths would have required a large quantity of subcutaneous fat to survive in the high Arctic environments. The proposed semi-hibernation behaviour of mammoth populations suggests that this species could have provided a suitable source of fatty acids for Palaeolithic populations*. Finally, the authors suggest that the cold climate could have preserved fat for longer allowing these populations to exploit this resource over a longer period of time.

Overall the research is interesting and attempts to directly approach the availability and quality of fat obtained from mammoth carcasses. Whilst it is interesting the semi-hibernation suggested appears, currently, at odds with other information regarding mammoth behaviour and requires further study and insight. This data needs to be collated alongside other zooarchaeological and isotopic data to provide a comprehensive picture of the role this species played in hominin diets.

Full reference:  Guil-Guerrero, J.L et al. 2014. The Fat from Frozen Mammals Reveals Sources of Essential Fatty Acids Suitable for Palaeolithic and Neolithic Humans. PLOS One: 9(1): e84480. 

* The results also confirm that the horse and bovid species would have provided suitable quantities of fat for Neolithic populations, though obviously without any mammoth!

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