March 05, 2013

Our rabbit-hunting ancestors (Fa et al. 2013)

From the paper:
Relative to other mammal groups, rabbit bone abundance was always significantly higher during the Upper Palaeolithic (76%) and Mesolithic (59%) than during the Middle Palaeolithic (Fig. 4). The difference between the average rabbit remains and that of cervids, the second most abundant prey item, were less than 10% during the Mousterian. In contrast, during the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, the difference between the rabbit and the second-most important prey items was over 60% and 20%, respectively. After the rabbit, large ungulates (caprids, cervids and equids) were relatively important during the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic, while caprids, cervids and suids took that place during the Mesolithic (Fig. 4).
Our evidence indicates that hominin diets may have changed from one dependent on large mammals during the Middle Palaeolithic to diets dominated by smaller species in the Upper Palaeolithic, in particular by the wild rabbit. The explanation for this transition is either that climate change negatively impacted large mammal populations, forcing prehistoric people to incorporate smaller vertebrate species into their diets, or that people themselves negatively impacted large mammal populations, which in turn forced foragers to add smaller species to their diets. 
I am not sure how modern hunter-gatherers hunt rabbits, but I would think that trapping, or some type of slingshot or blowdart would be ideal for this small and fast-moving animal. Did Neandertals simply lack efficient technology to capture rabbit, or is there some other reason why they underutilized the species?

Journal of Human Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.01.002

Rabbits and hominin survival in Iberia 

John E. Fa et al.

High dependence on the hunting and consumption of large mammals by some hominins may have limited their survival once their preferred quarry became scarce or disappeared. Adaptation to smaller residual prey would have been essential after the many large-bodied species decreased in numbers. We focus on the use of a superabundant species, the rabbit, to demonstrate the importance of this taxon in Iberia as fundamental to predators. We show that the use of the rabbit over time has increased, and that there could have been differential consumption by Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH). Analysis of bone remains from excavations throughout Iberia show that this lagomorph was a crucial part of the diet of AMH but was relatively unutilised during the Mousterian, when Neanderthals were present. We first present changes in mammalian biomass and mean body mass of mammals over 50,000 years, to illustrate the dramatic loss of large mammalian fauna and to show how the rabbit may have contributed a consistently high proportion of the available game biomass throughout that period. Unlike the Italian Peninsula and other parts of Europe, in Iberia the rabbit has provided a food resource of great importance for predators including hominins. We suggest that hunters that could shift focus to rabbits and other smaller residual fauna, once larger-bodied species decreased in numbers, would have been able to persist. From the evidence presented here, we postulate that Neanderthals may have been less capable of prey-shifting and hence use the high-biomass prey resource provided by the rabbit, to the extent AMH did.



  1. The classic rabbit-hunting technology of the Native Americans was people-intensive, using communal nets and crowds of noise-makers to send the rabbits into the nets. In the Western US, the nets were made from dogbane fiber, and net-weaving was so labor intensive that only whole villages make afford a net, and its upkeep has been a whole community business just like the hunt.

  2. My father growing up in rural Ireland spent a lot of time rabbit hunting, and he used 2 methods:

    1. Snare - leave a baited wire snare outside a borrow entrance, the rabbit takes the bait and catches a foot in the snare.
    2. Dog - use a greyhound - or 1/2 greyhound x 1/2 terrier in his case - to catch them in the open

  3. But what about "Rabbit Starvation"?

    Rabbit meat is notouriously NOT a good source of food for long-term survival...

    So we should "invert" the conclusion...

    As the larger mammals vanished and reliance on rabbit meat increased, meat-only Neanderthals didn't manage to sustain themselves on rabbit alone, whereas modern humans were more adapted to compensate the lack of nutrients with a more balanced fish/berry diet.

    So this finding would lend credence to the idea that Neanderthals died out largely because of their over-reliance on terrestrial red meat.

    The evidence available in support of that thesis is stronger than ever, apparently.

  4. "Rabbit meat is notouriously NOT a good source of food for long-term survival..."

    The link actually refers to any lean meat, not just rabbit. I ate a lot of rabbits in my school days, but I shot them with a rifle. I think that perhaps the reason rabbits didn't make up a high proportion of the Middle Paleolithic diet was that humans hadn't worked out how to make snares or nets. Upper Paleolithic people were possibly forced to turn to rabbit through the extinction of the megafauna. I seem to remember reading there was a similar turning towards birds in the diet. Probably for the same reasons.

  5. While they had a diet high in meat, Neanderthals ate starch, too, and also knew how to exploit seafood. However, hunting rabbits isn't all that easy and needs some technologies (as said above - nets, often used by women in the American SW, sometimes made with the help of human hair; or snares, or trained dogs).

    As to starvation from lean meat: that is pretty rare - especially if the bone marrow and brain are consumed. Also, most HGs know/ knew how to preserve fat, which is abundant from many animals and can be stored for "lean" times.

  6. More likely the cause was the other way around. Moderns extincted those animals not neanderthals. And obviously neanderthals didn't die out they are several % of our genetic makeup.

  7. Snares are quite fiddly which makes me wonder about hand size.

    I also wonder if the amount of meat you could get from hunting rabbits could ever compare with the sort of amounts you could get from taking down a mammoth.

  8. I have a pet rabbit who lives in the back yard. He would not be easy to catch if he didn't feel like being picked up, and he's a big white domestic rabbit. The little brown rabbits in the hills are very, very quick. My impression is that rabbits have some kind of randomness generator in their decisionmaking process. After 8 years, I still can't predict what my pet rabbit will do. Rabbits aren't very smart, but they're hard to outsmart because their behavior is unpredictable.

  9. I am not entirely convinced that rabbit hunting is what was going on. Even today, rabbits aren't really considered a classic domesticated farm animal, but it is one of the easiest animals to raise in a cage. The food they need is easily gathered. Maybe these were bred and caged rather than truly wild.

  10. I am not entirely convinced that rabbit hunting is what was going on.

    Well, rabbit hunting is documented from the native American SW and some other cultures. It's not as difficult as it sounds (especially with "breadcrumbs seduction"), and takes much less resources than (for that time anyway undocumented) domestication. I fed the rabbits my grandfather kept - it was relatively easy, but including cleaning the cages and keeping the animals healthy it was a bit of an effort, every day, for a small once-a-year (but admittedly extremely tasty ;)) benefit.

  11. Better to consider eating the whole rabbits (fur singed off), not just "meat"


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