Wild horses a crucial part of Neanderthal diet, study finds

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The bones of wild horses recovered from the region in central Slovakia. Photo: Comenius University
The bones of wild horses recovered from the region in central Slovakia. Photo: Comenius University

Wild horses were a crucial food source for Neanderthals who lived in central Slovakia more than 40,000 years ago, a study has revealed.

The researchers from Comenius University, in Bratislava, based their findings on analysis of more than 11,500 animal bones, fragments and teeth left by the Neanderthals who lived around the Prepoštská cave in Bojnice.

Thomas Čeklovský, a doctoral student of paleontology in the university’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, worked with other experts to cast fresh light on the dietary habits of Neanderthals who lived in the area.

Their diet was found to comprise mainly wild horses (Equus cf. Germanicus), as well as furred rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), bison (Bison priscus), aurochs (Bos primigenius), a large species of deer (Megaloceros giganteus), reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) and the comparatively rare furred mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius).

The researchers also found some remains of cave lions (Panthera spelaea) and bear (Ursus sp.). They also found remains from badgers and hares, along with rodents, birds, snakes and frogs.

The evidence pointed to organized hunting by the Neanderthals.

Many bones were found burned – usually those of larger animals such as horses, mammoths, rhinoceros, and bison.

“Neanderthals scraped meat from the bones and deliberately smashed long bones to obtain bone marrow,” Čeklovský said.

The burning was also suggestive of some processing of meat with heat.

Their diet would also have consisted of roots, plants and fruits.

The Prepoštská cave in Bojnice was the base of a Palaeolithic settlement in the Upper Nitra region.

The area consists of a huge overhang with an eight metre long cave area, on top of which now stands the Bojnice castle.

The cave is consider the base of one of the most important Neanderthal settlements in Slovakia.

Prepoštská Neanderthals tended to use the cave short-term and it may have served as a hyena den in their absence, with some evidence of gnawing on the bones by the likes of hyenas and wolves.

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