Stable Isotopes Mammal Bone Collagen 13C 15N

Using stable isotopes to estimate date and diet.

Stable Isotopes Mammal Bone Collagen 13C 15N

Recent History

Ancient History




Palaeolithic and Mesolithic kill-butchering sites: the hard evidence

Lower Paleolithic hunting pratices are described, which represent scavenging large carcasses stuck near water holes and limited planning or hunting.


The places where animals have been killed or at least butchered by our ancestors represent obviously the best expression of the relation between man and his prey. Isaac (Isaac, 1976; Isaac & Cradeq, 1981), referring to African deposits of Lower Palaeolithic age, defines a simple kind of such sites as containing the skeleton of a single, large animal, associated with lithic artefacts (his type B sites): they represent a unique episode. However such accumulations seem to be very rare: in fact near the carcass of the huge beast almost always other generally much more fragmentary remains of other animals are found. These can represent "background" material without direct relation with hominid activity, but we cannot be sure of this. Evidently, Isaac's definition does not cover the effective variability of all Palaeolithic and Mesolithic kill and/or butchering sites. Therefore, I have tried, in my tesi di laurea, to develop a typolo gy of the possible kinds of bone concentrations reflecting man's animal procurement behaviour. For this aim, I drew information from various authors discussing the topic (Binford, 1984; Clark & Haynes, 1970; Crader, 1983; Meignen & Texieq, 1956) and read a selected number of papers dealing directly, or indirectly through discussions or summaries, with some 30 sites, my reading assignment depending to some extent on the accessibility of the papers included. I am aware that my sampling of sites is limited and perhaps biased and that the evidence as presented by the various authors is often equivocal, but I hope that my attempt will stimulate the development of a site typology which could be a useful tool for classification and research. 

2. Suggested site typology:

a. Butchering sifes: places with animal natural deaths, later utilised by mary such as sites FLK N Lev. 6 (fig.1) and FLK N Deinotherium at Olduvai (Crader, 1983; Leakey, 1971), and site HAS (fig.2) at Koobi Fora (Cradeq, 1983). 

b. Killing and butchering sites 1: a single animal carcass representing a unique hunting episode. This kind of accumulation is similar to Isaac's type B sites. An American example is Pleasant Lake (Fishea 1984; fig. 3). 

c. Killing and butchering sites 2: extensive disarticulation and dispersion of the bones of a few big animals at the most associated with a comparatively small number of stone artefacts. Examples are Windhoek (Clark & Haynes, 1970) and perhaps Mwanganda (Clark & Haynes,1970). 

d. Hunting losses: animals killed but not utilised by man; High Furlong (Hallam et al., 1973) would be an example. 

e. Hunting stations: dense distributions of osseous remains reflecting the reutilization of the locality for a lorig period, often on a seasonal base. Examples of such palimpsests of archaeological remains could be Mauran (Farizy & David, in press; Girard-Farizy & Leclerc, 1981), Stellmoor (Rus! 1937) and La Cotte de Saint-Brelade, lev. 3 and 6 (Scott, 1980; ftg. q. A subtype of hunting stations could be represented by American mass kills, as for example the Casper Site (Frison, 1974). In these sites, not examined here, animals are normally killed with game drive techniques. 

f. Hunting stops: they can be relatively simple or quite complex: sometimes the hunters seek shelter behind a high rock and light a small fire as suggested by Binford (Binford, 1981). An example could be Phase IVA of the Grotte de l'Hortus (de Lumley, 1971). 

g. Sighting sites: they would be characterised by modest bone accumulations in locations with a panoramic position and allowing to detect game and its movements easily. Examples are the Mesolithic sites described by Bagolini and Dalmeri (Bagolini & Dalmeri,

3.1. Lower Palaeolithic Scavenging: exploitation of the carcasses of big animals that died for natural causes; they are often found near lakes or swamps, as the elephant and maybe the Deinotherium at Olduvai (Leakey, 1971), the hippopotamus of Koobi Fora (Isaac, 7976) and the elephants of Kathu Pan (Klein, 1988), Namib IV (Kleirr, 1988) and Mwanganda's Village (Clark & Haynes, 1970). 

Hunting: scanty traces of hunters' action are encountered. At Olorgesailie, occasional killing of some baboons with a head blow seems to have occurred (Shipman, Bosler & Davis, 1981). At Torralba and Ambrona, people may have killed elephants using wooden spears (fragments of wooden artefacts are present) and big stones (Allain" 1952). At Lehringen (Movius, 1950), hominids killed an Elephas antiquus with a wooden spear discovered in the site (see also Weber, this volume). 

Planning: very limited or absent. The exploitation of animals would have been occasional and opportunistic with short and limited occupation of sites by small groups, as at Olduvai (Cradeq, 1983), Koobi Fora (Cradeq, 1983), etc. 

Food transport: Acheulean people are said to have carried away the most useful and meaty parts of animal carcasses at Torralba (Freemary 1975), Ambrona (Freem an, 1975), Elandsfontein (Klein, 1988), etc. In earlier times, people apparently consumed the meat on the find spot. Specialised activities: at the already cited sites of Torralba, Ambrona and at Mwanganda distinct associations between certain bones and tools would occur: they may represent specialised activity areas. 

Butchering tools: hand-axes and hachereaux are sometimes associated with big animals at Olorgesailie (Shipman, Bosler & Davis, 1981), Elandsfontein (Klein, 1988), Kathu Pan (Klein, 1988), Namib IV (Klein, 1988) etc., suggesting that they were used for butchering.

Aïn Hanech, Khedara, Algeria



Strongest evidence of early humans butchering animals discovered in North Africa

Early humans butchered horses and antelopes on a high grassy plateau in Algeria 2.4 million years ago.


On a high grassy plateau in Algeria, just 100 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, early human ancestors butchered extinct horses, antelopes, and other animals with primitive stone tools 2 million to 2.4 million years ago. The dates, reported today, push back the age of the oldest tools in North Africa by as much as a half a million years and provide new insight into how these protohumans spread across the continent.

For decades, east Africa has been considered the birthplace of our genus Homo, and the epicenter of early toolmaking for almost 1 million years. The oldest known Homo fossils date back 2.8 million years in Ethiopia. Nearby, just 200,000 years later, scientists have found simple tools, such as thumb-size stone flakes, and fist-size cores from which such flakes were struck, in the nearby Rift Valley of Ethiopia.

After 25 years of excavations at the Ain Hanech complex—a dry ravine in Algeria—an international team reports the discovery of about 250 primitive tools and 296 bones of animals from a site called Ain Boucherit. About two dozen animal bones have cut marks that show they were skinned, defleshed, or pounded for marrow. Made of limestone and flint, the sharp-edged flakes and round cores—some the size of tennis balls—resemble those found in east Africa. Both represent the earliest known toolkit, the so-called Oldowan technology, named for the site where they were found 80 years ago at Olduvai in Tanzania.

Ain Hanech lacks volcanic minerals, which provide the gold standard for dating sites in eastern Africa. Instead, the researchers used three other dating methods, notably paleomagnetic dating, which detects known reversals in Earth’s magnetic field that are recorded in rock. The tools and cut-marked bones date as far back as 2.4 million years ago, the researchers report today in Science. They also used the identity of large, extinct animals, such as mastodons and ancient horses, to confirm the dates.

The cut-marked bones represent “the oldest substantive evidence for butchery” anywhere, says paleoanthropologist Thomas Plummer of the City University of New York’s Queens College, who was not involved with the study. Although other sites of this age in east Africa have stone tools, the evidence for actual butchery of animals is not as strong, he says.

At Ain Hanech, the dates provide “convincing evidence for stone tools and cut-marked bones at about 2 million years or more,” says geochronologist Warren Sharp of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California. But he finds the 2.4 million date “less compelling,” because of potential issues with the dating methods.

Whether the tools are 2 million or 2.4 million years old, they suggest toolmakers had spread farther and wider across Africa earlier than previously known. “There must have been a corridor through the Sahara with movement between east Africa and North Africa,” says paleoanthropologist Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Alternatively, the new dates suggest hominins in at least two different parts of Africa, separated by 5000 kilometers, were sophisticated enough to independently invent rudimentary stone tools and habitually make them, Potts says.

Either way, the study suggests that by 2 million years ago or so, making stone tools and butchering meat with them was routine for human ancestors in distant corners of the African continent. And this technological revolution may have given them the tools they needed to travel farther and wider across Africa and beyond




Humans hunted for meat 2 million years ago - Evidence from ancient butchery site in Tanzania shows early man was capable of ambushing herds up to 1.6 million years earlier than previously thought

Evidence from ancient butchery site in Tanzania shows early man was capable of ambushing herds up to 2 million years ago and were selecting "only adult animals in their prime" which also tend to be the fattiest and we were picking what we wanted compared to other carnivores.


Ancient humans used complex hunting techniques to ambush and kill antelopes, gazelles, wildebeest and other large animals at least two million years ago. The discovery – made by anthropologist Professor Henry Bunn of Wisconsin University – pushes back the definitive date for the beginning of systematic human hunting by hundreds of thousands of years.

Two million years ago, our human ancestors were small-brained apemen and in the past many scientists have assumed the meat they ate had been gathered from animals that had died from natural causes or had been left behind by lions, leopards and other carnivores.

But Bunn argues that our apemen ancestors, although primitive and fairly puny, were capable of ambushing herds of large animals after carefully selecting individuals for slaughter. The appearance of this skill so early in our evolutionary past has key implications for the development of human intellect.

"We know that humans ate meat two million years ago," said Bunn, who was speaking in Bordeaux at the annual meeting of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE). "What was not clear was the source of that meat. However, we have compared the type of prey killed by lions and leopards today with the type of prey selected by humans in those days. This has shown that men and women could not have been taking kill from other animals or eating those that had died of natural causes. They were selecting and killing what they wanted."

That finding has major implications, he added. "Until now the oldest, unambiguous evidence of human hunting has come from a 400,000-year-old site in Germany where horses were clearly being speared and their flesh eaten. We have now pushed that date back to around two million years ago."

The hunting instinct of early humans is a controversial subject. In the first half of the 20th century, many scientists argued that our ancestors' urge to hunt and kill drove us to develop spears and axes and to evolve bigger and bigger brains in order to handle these increasingly complex weapons. Extreme violence is in our nature, it was argued by fossil experts such as Raymond Dart and writers like Robert Ardrey, whose book African Genesis on the subject was particularly influential. By the 80s, the idea had run out of favour, and scientists argued that our larger brains evolved mainly to help us co-operate with each other. We developed language and other skills that helped us maintain complex societies.

"I don't disagree with this scenario," said Bunn. "But it has led us to downplay the hunting abilities of our early ancestors. People have dismissed them as mere scavengers and I don't think that looks right any more."

In his study, Bunn and his colleagues looked at a huge butchery site in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. The carcasses of wildebeest, antelopes and gazelles were brought there by ancient humans, most probably members of the species Homo habilis, more than 1.8 million years ago. The meat was then stripped from the animals' bones and eaten.

"We decided to look at the ages of the animals that had been dragged there," said Benn. "By studying the teeth in the skulls that were left, we could get a very precise indication of what type of meat these early humans were consuming. Were they bringing back creatures that were in their prime or were old or young? Then we compared our results with the kinds of animals killed by lions and leopards."

The results for several species of large antelope Bunn analysed showed that humans preferred only adult animals in their prime, for example. Lions and leopards killed old, young and adults indiscriminately. For small antelope species, the picture was slightly different. Humans preferred only older animals, while lions and leopards had a fancy only for adults in their prime.

"For all the animals we looked at, we found a completely different pattern of meat preference between ancient humans and other carnivores, indicating that we were not just scavenging from lions and leopards and taking their leftovers. We were picking what we wanted and were killing it ourselves."

Bunn believes these early humans probably sat in trees and waited until herds of antelopes or gazelles passed below, then speared them at point-blank range. This skill, developed far earlier than suspected, was to have profound implications. Once our species got a taste for meat, it was provided with a dense, protein-rich source of energy. We no longer needed to invest internal resources on huge digestive tracts that were previously required to process vegetation and fruit, which are more difficult to digest. Freed from that task by meat, the new, energy-rich resources were then diverted inside our bodies and used to fuel our growing brains.

As a result, over the next two million years our crania grew, producing species of humans with increasingly large brains – until this carnivorous predilection produced Homo sapiens.




Stable Isotope Analyses and the Evolution of Human Diets

Margaret Schoeninger describes how stable isotopes tell us that humans and neanderthals were likely high level carnivores.


Abstract Stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen has revolutionized anthropology’s approach and understanding of the evolution of human diet. A baseline comparison across extant nonhuman primates reveals that they all depend on C3 plants in forests, forest patches, and woodlands except during rare seasonal intake, in marginal regions, or where maize fields exist. Even large bodied hominoids that could theoretically rely on hard-to-digest C4 plants do not do so. Some Plio-Pleistocene hominins, however, apparently relied heavily on C4 and/or CAM plants, which suggests that they relied extensively on cecal-colon microbial fermentation. Neanderthals seem less carnivorous than is often assumed when we compare their δ15Nbone collagen values with those of recent human populations, including recent human foragers who also fall at or near the top of their local trophic system. Finally, the introduction of maize into North America is shown to have been more sporadic and temporally variable than previously assumed.

One of the most interesting and confounding applications of stable isotope ratios has been the study of Neanderthal δ15Nbone collagen values. On the basis of nitrogen data, authors suggest that Neanderthals ate virtually no plants or were highly carnivorous (Balter & Simon 2006, Hublin et al. 2009), predominantly ate meat (Richards & Schmitz 2008, El Zaatari et al. 2011), or obtained their protein solely from meat (Richards et al. 2008), especially large herbivores (Richards & Trinkaus 2009). Some have even suggested that Neanderthals might have differed physiologically from modern humans in order to digest such large amounts of meat (Pearson 2007). Complete carnivory in extant primates occurs only in Tarsier, which weighs ∼100 g and has distinct morphological adaptations that allow it to obtain and survive on such a diet (Fleagle 2013). Some foraging human populations such as the Dogrib, a Dene Aboriginal Canadian people living in the northwestern part of Canada, survived on almost 60% animal products (Szathmary et al. 1987), as did other human foragers living far from the equator (Kelly 1995, Cordain et al. 2000). All these groups, however, included significant amounts of plant foods and/or animal fat, and there may be a protein ceiling of ∼35% (Cordain et al. 2000) because higher levels compromise liver function owing to physiological limitations on urea synthesis (Speth & Spielmann 1983, Hardy 2010). In part, the assumption of carnivory is based on the expectation that Neanderthals lived under arctic conditions with few available plants. Yet, many Neanderthal sites are in more southern parts of western and southern Europe (Shipman 2008 and see included references), and Europe experienced temperature fluctuations, including warm intervals, during Neanderthal times (Hardy 2010). Evidence from dental calculus indicates that Neanderthals ate some plants (Henry et al. 2011, Salazar-Garcia et al. 2013), and edible plants were recovered from the Neanderthal site of Amud, Israel (Madella et al. 2002). Richards & Schmitz (2008) concluded that high carnivory was based on the similarity between Neanderthal values (9 and 7.9) and those of a red fox (8.6), even though red foxes are noted to be omnivores (Lloyd 1981). Figure 2 compares all generally accepted European Neanderthal δ15Nbone collagen values compared with European hyena, horse, and reindeer (Bocherens et al. 1991, Bocherens et al. 1999, Richards et al. 2000, Bocherens et al. 2001, Bocherens et al. 2005, Richards et al. 2008, Richards & Schmitz 2008). Although Neanderthals have the highest δ15Nbone collagen values, the overlap between individual Neanderthal δ15Nbone collagen values and those of hyenas is extensive (10.1–11.8 in the former and 7.9–11.5 in the latter). This is the same pattern seen in North American Great Basin human foragers (see Figure 2) and four additional trophic systems (Schoeninger 1995b). High relative δ15Nbone collagen values are common in humans, although it is far from clear how this result occurs. Neanderthals clearly ate meat just as human foragers worldwide do (Kelly 1995, Speth 2006); they selected prime adults and the bones most likely to contain a lot of marrow (Gaudzinski & Roebroeks 2000). Some data also suggest that they hunted marine mammals (Stringer et al. 2008), which often have much fat. Such selection would allow them to eat animal products for up to two-thirds of their diet. But, the question is, did they? Or, perhaps more realistically, did they all participate, and if so, when? Only after we understand why humans almost always have high δ15Nbone collagen values can we address these questions fully.




Palaeolithic and Mesolithic kill-butchering sites:
the hard evidence

Middle Palaeolithic hunting involves less occasional killings, more specialization in large prey, game driving, dismembership in butchering and marrow extraction.


3.2. Middle Palaeolithic Hunting: Sites such as Zwolen (Gautier, 1989) and Mauran (Farrzy & David, in press; Girard-Farrzy & Leclerc,1981) preserve clear evidence of active hunting. 

Planning: killings are less often occasional. Neanderthal man returns periodically (or seasonally) to special places rich in game and with a natural topography propitious to hunting activities. This testifies to an intentional and calculated choice, as at the sites already mentioned. 

Specialisation: sometimes man specialises in the capture of a particular animal species: big bovids at Mauran (Farizy & David, in press), horses at Zwolen (Gautier, 1989), wild goats at the Grotte de l'Hortus (de Lumley, 1971). 

Hunting techniques: probably some kind of game driving was practised at Mauran (Farizy & David, in press), Zwolen (Gautieq, 1989), La Quina (Jelinek, Debenath & Dibble, 7989) and La Cotte de Saint-Brelade (Scott, 1e80). 

Seasonal killings: many killings are probably seasonal, animals fall in discrete age groups at Zwolen (Gautieq, 1989) and La Quina (]elinek, Debenath & Dibble, 1989). 

Food transport: the lightest and most meaty bones (hind limbs, pulni, ribs, vertebrae) may be carried away. In kill sites man leaves big and useless parts of animal skeletons (skulls, jaws etc.). Transport of meaty skeletal parts may be exemplified at Mauran (Farizy & David, in press). 

Butchering activities: at Maurary Farizy and David (Fafizy & David, in press) notice many phases in the butchering process: dismemberment, removal of muscular masses and bone breakage for marrow extraction.