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What killed Neanderthals? Scientists blame those rascally rabbits

The inability to catch small prey, such as wild rabbits like this one, may have contributed to Neanderthal extinction.
The inability to catch small prey, such as wild rabbits like this one, may have contributed to Neanderthal extinction.Patrick Pleul / EPA

Neanderthals were big-game hunters who feasted on mammoth and rhino but didn’t or couldn’t eat smaller, leaner meat. Their picky diet — or limited hunting skills — could have made them vulnerable when mammal populations shrank and their favorite dinner became harder to find.

A broad survey of animal remains recorded at early human and Neanderthal sites across Spain, Portugal and France gives us new insight as to what humans and Neanderthals ate. One trend stuck out to scientists who assembled the data: Rabbit remains became much more popular at human sites just about the time that Neanderthals disappeared, about 30,000 years ago.

Given how common bunnies would have been in that area, the trend hints that Neanderthals did not adapt their diet to include them. After all, the evidence suggests, early humans seem to have made the switch.

There’s no data to explain this trend, but there are theories. Neanderthals may have avoided rabbit dinners because they lacked the technology to catch them, says John Stewart, who studies fossil records and ancient climate at Bournemouth University.

“With modern humans, you see technology that allows them to catch smaller or faster-moving prey,” Stewart told NBC News. That leads to the “strong possibility” that humans were more efficient than Neanderthals at catching smaller but faster animals. Stewart and his collaborators explain their findings in a paper in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Of course, Neanderthals didn’t just live in Iberia. And in n other parts of the world, there’s evidence to show that they were catching seals and fish and mussels, and even birds.

But Stewart believes that the rabbit diet story is an indication of challenges Neanderthals faced all over the world. “I think the rabbit was just a symptom [of their extinction] rather than the cause,” Stewart says. “Neanderthals were more vulnerable because they had less tricks up their sleeve, less breadth of possibilities.”

More about Neanderthal histories: 

Via New Scientist

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. Follow on Twitter, Google+