4.3 Faunal contexts

Faunal contexts have been withheld until after presentation of hominid remains, because we still cannot offer more than a general overview. There are daunting quantities of microfaunal remains at both sites; producing a detailed inventory is slow, time-consuming, and far from complete, and taphonomic findings are still awaited. Restoration of faunal remains is often needed. We are far from being able to make comparisons or contrasts between the faunal composition of units 2 and 3 at Cueva Negra where, in any case, the different extent to which these have been excavated makes any such attempt fraught with danger. At Sima de las Palomas, so little systematic excavation has as yet been carried out that many significant fossils come only from clearance of mine rubble and scree - here, and to a lesser extent at Cueva Negra (especially its superficial unit 1), modern faunal contaminants intrude. Nevertheless, the fauna (Table 30, Table 31) is broadly in keeping with early Upper Pleistocene or final Middle Pleistocene times, though such generality is unhelpful for answering specific questions about our sites.

Birds afford important palaeoecological insights. At Sima de las Palomas, although Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) and Rock Dove (Columba livia) come from our upper cutting, it is more likely these two occupied the site in turns rather than together (Rock Dove nests there today). Other birds represented were probably washed into the shaft. Most avian species come from our lower cutting through mine rubble in the main chamber floor, or mine rubble on the hillside; of 741 bones analyzed many may be recent.

At Cueva Negra, 991 bones representing over 60 species, throw great light on palaeoecology, testifying to considerable niche and habitat diversity, and marked seasonal variety. Unlike Sima de las Palomas, extremely few species come only from unstratified or disturbed deposits. Cueva Negra bird remains often belong to species that could well have been preferentially selected game (Wildfowl, Partridge) alongside resident species (Rock Dove, Chough): a living larder for drawing upon at need by humans or animal predators. A clear ecological pattern exists in the diversity of birdlife within the foraging range of the rock-shelter. First and foremost, it points to wetland habitat with areas even of deep water for diving ducks. A wetland location is consistent with occurrence of Megaloceros and as a habitat it would have supported the population of Wildfowl (Tadorna, Anas, Netta, Aythya, etc.) and small wading species like the Little Stint (Calidris minuta) and Sandpiper (Tringa hypoleucos). Most of the visitors would have been winter species or spring and autumn passage migrants, supplying variety to a hunter-gatherer diet during these more meagre months of the year.

The avifauna also tells of open woodland, probably densest along the slopes of what was then a shallower valley than today. This would have supported the Woodpigeons, Owls, Nightjar, Woodpecker, Woodlark, Thrushes, Jay and some of the Finches. Whereas today Pinus halepensis predominates, then broad-leaved trees must have existed, including some species of Quercus whose autumn acorns are most important in diets of Jays and Woodpigeons, at which season they and many other species of birds and mammals engage in vigorous competition to gather and store these fruits.

There are also indications of nearby open country, both grassland as a niche for Larks and Plovers (the latter being winter visitors or on passage), and feeding grounds for Choughs, Eagles and Falcons; while cliffs of the upper levels of the valley and surrounding mountains offered an avian habitat similar to that of today. Soft sediments, like those still present across the valley from the cave, gave accommodation to Beaters and Sand Martins, and the fissured rocks above and around the rock-shelter provided nest and roost sites for the Rock Thrushes, Choughs, Crag Martins, Swallows and Swifts. All the Hirundids, Apodidae and Beaters are good seasonal indicators, being summer visitors with fairly precise dates of arrival and departure. If they were predated upon by humans, and not, as may be more probable, natural casualties, they could suggest a summer occupation of the cave to complement the autumn and winter data presented by the water birds.

The varied avifauna at Cueva Negra has counterparts at well-known middle palaeolithic sites early in the last ice age, like Combe Grenal in France (Chauviré 1976). It suggests deliberate and eclectic attitudes to exploitng birds for food by Mousterian hunter-gatherers. A similar pattern, implying similar strategies, occurs at Cova Negra de Bellús near Xátiva (Valencia) and El Salt at Alcoi (Alicante), and also, with allowance for intrusive maritime components, at Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar. Study of the species taken back to those sites enabled the ecological zones where they were culled to be mapped out, and established hunting ranges of around a 5-6km radius (Eastham 1989). Given the likelihood of ancient wetlands in the Quípar and Argos valleys near Cueva Negra, a similar foraging range for its hunter-gatherers can be envsaged.

At Cueva Negra our impression is that head-parts of large mammals are prominent in the faunal collection. Future statistical analysis may show whether this is so or not. Since both Hyaena (Plate 32) and Bear were found, maybe these carnivores brought carrion to the cave, particularly when humans did not use it (and perhaps could not, during ice-age winters).

Plate 32: Cueva Negra - hyaena mandible. Scale in cm. (Photo M.J.Walker)

Three allochthonous stone flakes and fragments, and a hominid tooth, were touching a rhinoceros skull excavated alongside a rhinoceros mandible and large vertebra, but only two fragments of unidentifiable large limb bones. Most likely, the rhino was dismembered elsewhere, whether hunted or scavenged by humans or carnivores. An elephantid mandibular ramus lay over a tortoise shell (fortuitously? - or covering on purpose a cup or bowl?) and an immature elephantid vertebra has also been found: hunting lions and hunting humans stand alone as elephant predators; Lion has not been found yet, whereas Homo has - but did Neanderthal Homo hunt big game or only scavenge?

Although perhaps the Cueva Negra Megaceros skull fragment was brought by carnivores despite its extremely heavy massive inedible antlers, we suspect human agency. Why? Well, flake-scars occur distally on three short pedicle stumps of Red Deer antler crown-beams (Plate 33).

Plate 33: Cueva Negra - antler crown beam. Scale in cm. (Photo M.J.Walker)

Although two were shed antlers, one was not and still bears a cylindrical core of hard cranial bone. It could have been suitable for a knapping billet (heavy soft-hammer) for primary flaking (cf. Whittaker 1995, 181). Today's amateur knappers make billets often from shed antler stumps - undoubtedly easier to acquire. Distal parts of antlers, of course, can be worked into billets (light soft-hammers: Whittaker 1995, 180-83) for retouching/trimming by secondary flaking, primary knapping of slender blades or modest flakes, or even dentists' hammers (Bouchud, in Bordes 1974; though A.V.Lombardi reassures tooth-ache sufferers that they don't form part of his dental clinic's equipment!).

We cannot know whether they really were knapping billets - unlike excavated cobbles showing pitting from use as hammer-stones - though the flake-scars suggest whittling-down of antler crown-beams, perhaps by a superbly crafted flint graver (burin) we found (chert gravers occur also). Maybe the Megaceros small frontal fragment sprouting massive antlers was stored in the cave for possible conversion into billets.

Antler soft-hammers have been made for 10,000 years by indigenous Americans (Anderson et al. 1978, 193, 194; Wheat 1974, 134, 136; Reher and Frison 1980, 26), but, though a Solutrean Reindeer antler billet comes from Laugerie-Haute (Bordes 1974), they are uncommon in Europe, apart from a Middle Pleistocene example from the British Acheulian at Boxgrove (Simon Parfitt, pers. comm.). Other possible examples are from the European neolithic: a Durrington Walls "antler pick ... probably used as a straight hammer" (Clutton-Brock 1984) and one in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) labelled "partly worked antler" from a Swiss lake settlement at Sipplingen on Überlingersee. Antlers (perhaps used as picks), with attached frontal-bone cylindrical elements, come from Middle Pleistocene Bilzingsleben, where bone-working is claimed (Mania 1990, 148-76).

Hippopotamus at Sima de las Palomas is identified by an incisor tooth with a steeply bevelled, chisel-sharp, incisive margin. The tooth, worn down almost to its neck, showed no canal exposed - unlike what happens in horse incisors after only slight attrition. It might otherwise be mistaken for horse because of its small size, under one-third of that of an African Hippopotamus incisor we inspected. Former coastal SE Spanish salt marshes probably incorporated the modern Mar Menor. Many have brackish water from freshwater springs or streams feeding them - one such stream was certainly active in prehistory.

Finally, food for thought is provided by absence at either site of bones identifiable as belonging to vultures, because nowadays the Lammergeier inhabits the Sierra del Segura 50km from Cueva Negra, and no less than four vulture species live in Spain (Gypaëtus barbatus aureus; Gyps fulvus; Aegypius monarchus; Neophron percnopterus). Absence of avian scavengers is surprising given the presence of bones of birds of prey at our sites. This could be just due to a sampling problem, or it could mean carrion was uncommon - offering slim pickings for scavengers, whether vultures, animals (hyaenas and bears, which scavenge but may also hunt), or Neanderthals (who maybe did both).


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Last updated: Wed Dec 23 1998