UNIVERSITY OF TÜBINGEN: Hunters and gatherers, but not fishermen

Fish was not on the menu of hunters and gatherers in southern Europe 27,000 years ago: surprisingly, in the late Gravettian period, people on the Iberian Peninsula instead fed on plants and land animals such as hares, deer or horses. An international team of researchers was able to understand this for the first time using an isotope study on human fossils from the Serinyà caves in Catalonia. Dr. Dorothée Drucker, Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (SHEP) at the University of Tübingen, and Joaquim Soler, Institute for Historical Research at the University of Girona, publish their results in the Journal of Human Evolution .

In the cultural period of the Gravettian (33,000-25,000 years before today) hunters and gatherers fed themselves according to the local environmental conditions: If the mammoth was on the menu in Central Europe, in Great Britain it was horse and reindeer; marine animals were eaten on the French and Italian Mediterranean coasts. In the last glacial maximum (27,000-23,000 years before today) the very cold and dry climate forced people to retreat to southern regions. The Iberian, Italian and Greek peninsulas in particular were increasingly populated.

The fossils of a total of four people from Serinyà, Spain, remained unexplored for a long time because there were doubts about their age. Scientists from the University of Girona have now dated them to an age of 25,000-27,000 years using the radiocarbon method. The very well preserved collagen from the bones enabled isotope analysis at the SHEP in Tübingen. Such analyzes can be used to determine what the main components of the diet of the examined people are.

For the first time, the research team also combined this with a new method: In collaboration with Dr. Yuichi Naito (currently Nagoya University in Japan) dissolved individual amino acids from the collagen and analyzed their isotopic composition. This made it possible to understand in more detail whether the diet of Stone Age people was based on vegetable proteins, meat or fish, according to the authors, and also which animals were consumed exactly.

Taking a sample from a human bone
A sample is taken from a human bone from the collection of the Serinyà Caves in the Archaeological Museum of Banyoles.
Excavation of human fossils
Mollet III excavation in Serinyà in 2014, during which human fossils were discovered.
According to the results, the diet was based on terrestrial resources, i.e. plants and land animals from the region, especially small prey such as rabbits. The amino acid isotopes confirm that fish, on the other hand, were hardly consumed – it had previously been assumed that people were dependent on food from bodies of water in the difficult climatic conditions. In this way you keep learning about the lifestyle and diet of the Stone Age, says Dorothée Drucker. “Apparently only a few populations were fished in that period, even in coastal regions. Apparently, even in this cold climate, the terrestrial environment was productive enough to feed the people. ”

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