What can rabbits tell us about Neanderthal extinction?


There are many theories about why Neanderthals went extinct 30,000 years ago, but I have to admit, ‘rabbits’ wasn’t one I’d really considered, other than the possibility that the cave-dwelling ancestor of the Rabbit of Caerbannog might have been responsible.

But a bit of research by Dr John Stewart, Associate Professor in Paleoecology and Environmental Change at Bournemouth University (BU) has shown that rabbits might actually have had something to do with it.

His team analysed data on rabbit bones found in archaeological excavations of caves in the Iberian Peninsula (one of the last Neanderthal strongholds and the place where rabbits originated).

They found that while rabbits were a crucial part of the modern humans’ diet, Neanderthals didn’t really use them, which is a bit odd, because rabbits are both abundant and predictable, and therefore relatively easy to catch.

Dr Stewart reckons that the fact that Neanderthals were hung up on hunting large prey over short distances in woodland settings and seemingly unable (or unwilling) to start catching faster, smaller prey would have been a real problem.

At the time, the climate was changing and the ecology was decreasing in terms of the amount of animals they were able to hunt and the failure to replace them with smaller ones could have been one of the factors that drove them over the edge.

Want to check this theory out in more detail? Dr Stewart is your man. He’s publishing his research open access, so you can. “It is a no-brainer, really,” he said.

Admittedly, we are slightly disappointed this wasn’t a story about the discovery of a killer rabbit that preyed on Neanderthals, but still, hats off to you Dr Stewart.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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