Early humans hunted beavers, 400,000 years ago – Evidence from Bilzingsleben, in eastern Germany shows that early humans had a more varied diet than previously known

Around 400,000 years ago, early humans hunted beavers as a food resource and possibly also for their pelts. This is the conclusion of a team from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), the Leibniz Zentrum für Archäologie (LEIZA), also in Mainz, and Leiden University in the Netherlands. In their publication in the journal Scientific Reports, the authors show that Middle Pleistocene humans systematically fed on these smaller animals and hence had a more varied diet than thus far known. Previously, the opinion was that that hominins of this age primarily subsisted on large mammals, such as bovids and rhinoceroses, for one simple reason:

“The remains of large mammals from this period are generally much better preserved than those of small ones, not to mention plant remains,”

says Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, Professor in the Department of Ancient Studies/Section Pre- and Protohistoric Archaeology at JGU and Director of the Archaeological Research Centre and Museum for Human Behavioural Evolution, MONREPOS, in Neuwied, which is part of LEIZA. She authored the new study together with two colleagues, Lutz Kindler, also from JGU and MONREPOS, and Wil Roebroeks from Leiden University.

“Until now, cut marks on Palaeolithic beaver bones had been identified very rarely and on isolated bones only. Dietrich Mania’s extensive and long-term excavations in Bilzingsleben yielded a large number of beaver remains. Their study has now revealed for the first time the long-term strategy behind the exploitation of these animals,” she explains.

Targeted hunting of young adults

The researchers used magnifying glasses and digital microscopes to examine the approximately 400,000-year-old bones of at least 94 beavers, excavated several decades ago in Bilzingsleben, Thuringia. This enabled them to identify cut marks from stone tools that indicate intensive use of the carcasses.

“It is interesting that the remains in Bilzingsleben mainly represent young adult beavers,”

says Gaudzinski-Windheuser. This indicates that hominins back then would have deliberately hunted inexperienced but fully grown and fat-rich animals. Fat was a very important food resource during the Pleistocene.

“Until now, it was generally thought that people in Europe fed primarily on large game until around 50,000 years ago, and that this was an important difference to the more flexible dietary strategies of modern humans. We have now demonstrated that the hominin food spectrum was much broader much earlier,” says Gaudzinski-Windheuser.

humans hunted beavers Bilzingsleben Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber)
Early humans from Bilzingsleben hunted beavers, 400,000 years ago. Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). Photo by Hangsna, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bibliographic information:
S. Gaudzinski-Windheuser et al., Beaver exploitation, 400,000 years ago, testifies to prey choice diversity of Middle Pleistocene hominins, Scientific Reports 13, 19766, 13, November 2023, DOI:
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-46956-6

Press release from the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz – JGU

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