4.2 Contextual faunal information

A comprehensive human-ecological characterisation must include an assessment of the possible range of fauna across the landscape, particularly important as the key figurative element in the paintings comprises two mammals. However, the nature of the geology, an area dominated by acidic rocks, means that bone does not survive on our sites. Consequently, we are obliged to make inferences based on regional archaeozoological evidence, and a broader understanding of the variety and distribution of animals across alpine vertical zones during the Holocene.

During the Mesolithic, a wide variety of wild animals was potentially available to hunters. Whereas lynx was probably present (Sommer et al. 2008) it is unlikely that it was hunted, although it possibly posed a threat as a competitor, or even a predator. The same would have been true of wolves (Canis lupus). Species that were hunted would have included roe and red deer (Capreolus capreolus and Cervus elaphus), whereas evidence from the Italian Alps suggests that in some areas Ibex/Bouquetin (Capra ibex) was the most popular hunted species (Fiore et al. 1998).

Red deer have been present in the region continuously, probably since the Upper Palaeolithic (Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle 2013). Whereas modern populations tend to live in small isolated groups, and are rarely seen in the high-altitude zones (above 2,000m) in the Ecrins, there is no doubt that summer ranges during the prehistoric periods encompassed these higher altitudes, and this is certainly still true today in some parts of the Alps (Luccarini et al. 2006). Red deer adapted well to late glacial-Holocene changes in climate, and would undoubtedly have been present in the French Alps. One interesting and important consequence of climate change was the concomitant modification in red deer biogeography: isotopic analyses carried out on red deer remains from sites across the Jura and the western edge of the French Alps demonstrate how red deer in Alpine zones occupied relatively open landscapes, often moving to higher altitudes (beyond the forest) (Drucker et al. 2011). This in itself is important with regards to our earlier assessments of the rationale for the location of Mesolithic hunting camps. Other wild animals present at this time, and throughout the Holocene, include chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) and marmot (Marmota marmota): evidence from the Italian Alps even supports the notion of specialised marmot hunters (Romandini et al. 2012). It is quite likely that deer was a preferred species for hunters moving into the high-altitude zones of the Alps from the Epipalaeolithic onwards. Moreover, we should consider the possibility that the pursuit of deer was not merely concerned with hunting for food, but that there was an ideological or ritual element associated with the killing of the deer, possibly even a notion of sacrifice (Fedele 1993, 195). It is also quite likely that the use of dogs in the hunt had its origins in the Epipalaeolithic or Mesolithic. It is tempting to suggest that the 10,050 year-old dog found at St Thibaud de Couz (Savoie, France) could have helped people in the hunt (Bintz and Griggo 2011).

The Neolithic and Bronze Age saw dramatic changes in animal populations across the Alps, with the introduction of domesticated species, including sheep, goat and cattle. The presence and exploitation of these animals, along with associated landscape management practices (such as forest clearance and the building of animal enclosures) constituted a radical change in the nature of human engagement with these areas. It is likely that hunting continued in zones where domesticates were pasturing. In other parts of the Alps, such as the Trentino Alto Adige, deer was the most hunted species during the third millennium BC. Deer played an important role in the diet, sometimes constituting a higher proportion of bone assemblages than domestic species (Tecchiati et al. 2013, 90). A similar trend has also been identified in Valcamonica (Fedele 2012). There is little doubt that Neolithic peoples continued to hunt in the Faravel area, suggested by the discovery of the arrowhead above the Faravel plateau at 2,500m, and lithic assemblages found across the plateau. Moreover, hunting probably continued throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. There is no reason why shepherds would not have hunted as part of their food procurement strategy during the summer.