Gran Dolina (Espagne) : Oldest case of bison communal hunting


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It could be an ordinary journey 400,000 years ago, in Sierra de Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain), when the meals was not regulated by schedules like today and people had to get the food almost daily, taking what was found around them. As the hominids behaviour become more complex they also learned to organize themselves so as not lose opportunities and if it turned out well, they were reoffending.

In Gran Dolina archaeological site, specifically in TD10.2 layer, the IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) had already identified a large bison bones concentration (a truly bone bed), but now they can understand the source of this accumulation. The latest investigations have made it possible to find out that this phenomenon happened by the reiteration of certain events in the same place, specifically communal hunting episodes of these animals’ herds.

The hominids cooperation process was fundamental because they were coordinated to drive the bison to Dolina where they were trapped, killed and, afterwards, butchered for bring the meat, the bones and the skins to the campsite. The location of the camp site is still unknown, but probably, they should not far from the kill site.

Concetracio bisonts dolina p4Bison bone bed at Gran Dolina (Atapuerca, Spain) – IPHES

This is confirmed in a just published paper in Journal of Human Evolution (JHE) whose main author is the archaeologist Dr. Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, postdoctoral researcher at Universidad Complutense de Madrid and associated researcher in IPHES. “Until now it was thought that this behaviour was exclusive of anatomically modern humans, but we demonstrated that 400,000 years ago, it was fully developed. The pre-neanderthal from Sima de los Huesos (another archaeological site located a few meters from Gran Dolina), probable protagonist of this accumulation, they have the cognitive ability and the social development needed to applicate this type of hunting strategy”, claim Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

In words of Dr. John Speth, emeritus Professor of Anthropology in Ann Arbor University (in Michigan), this discovery can be considered one most important for Eurasia prehistory of the decade. “The communal hunting of big, nimble and potentially dangerous preys like bison implies that hunters were able to cooperate with each other and effectively coordinate their activities on a scale not previously demonstrated for pre-modern humans about 400,000 years ago”, he says.

In addition, the researcher adds: “the cooperative efforts to kill a multiple individual of an animal as large as the bison implies that the hunters may have shared flesh among the participants, again insinuating a level of social complexity that had not been previously demonstrated for such a remote period”.

All this has been known applying the zooarchaeology, an important tool for the subsistence reconstruction and to infer relevant aspects of social behaviour in the past. The taxonomic composition and the anatomical profile observed in approximately 23,000 bison bones (of a species yet to be identified, a close relative form of Bison priscus) extracted in the TD10.2 level of Gran Dolina indicates a monospecific assemblage strongly dominated by elements of the axial skeleton (heads, ribs and vertebrae).

According to realized studies it should be noted that the area of the archaeological site where the bison remains, may have been used as a kill site and first point of carcasses processing. The bones show a very skewed skeleton representation and at the same time uncommon in the prehistoric sites, considering that the axial elements dominate. “Due to  the large number of prey involved in each communal kill, the hominids could select the richest parts in meat and grease, such as limbs, and they bring it to the campsites, leaving the axial zone at the mercy of scavengers, wolves and hyenas”, observe Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

Hominids consumed the bison tongue as snack

Together with these remains there was an unusual large number of hyoid bones (located under the tongue), some of them showing cut marks, which means that during the prey butchering, hominids consumed the bison tongue as snack for being rich in fat and protein discarding the hyoid bones at the site”, add the same researcher.

The abundance of anthropogenic modifications allows to observe primary and immediate access to the carcasses, as well as the development of a systematic butchering processed aimed at the exploitation of meat and fat, and the preparation for the transport of high utility elements to some place outside the cave (at the moment it is the assemblage with a greater number cut marks of the Palaeolithic record). “Ethnographic, ethnohistorical and archaeological analogies have made it possible to interpret the ‘bison bone bed’ as a kill site used during several seasonal communal hunting events in which whole bison herds were slaughtered to be intensely exploited by the hominids who occupied the cave”, specify Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo.

According to the same research, this hunting events was repeated seasonally, that is, in a timely manner at a few moments of the year. They used Dolina for bison capture and slaughter, late spring and early autumn, probably following the migrations of these animals.

Through the study of eruption, replacement and dental wear pattern we have been able to infer that the TD10.2 bison died synchronously in two narrow seasonal windows, which together with the catastrophic mortality pattern that the population presents (that is, a decrease in the frequency of dead individuals as the age advances), support mass hunting or communal hunting as a predatory technique”, says the same IPHES archaeologist.

Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo added: “the communal hunting early existence as a depredatory tactic informs us about the cognitive, technological, and social skills emergence similar to those exhibited by other modern communal hunters at a time as early as the middle Pleistocene”. In addition, the archaeologist has specified: “a large number of coordinated individuals are needed and working cooperatively with the same objective to carry out this type of hunt, which until now was thought to be a modern human’s monopoly and perhaps the last Neanderthals”.

Dolina manta p9

Gran Dolina site – IPHES

From the Dolina finding it has been shown that the action of those hominids was similar to the events that were generated about 10,000 years ago, in the Paleo-Indian groups in America. Likewise, there are several similarities between the communal hunting of bison used by the Native Americans in the Great Plains before the eighteenth century and the practices applied by the Gran Dolina hominids, who also had a high foresight capacity and knew the animals’ behaviour and the environment.

For these reason the events organisation could have been structured in a similar way since under these circumstances it was necessary for all members to take part in the process development, some as hunters and others as beaters. On the other hand, researchers have been able to document that there were other prey in the area to hunt, but the hominids deliberately decided to opt only for the bison and the communal hunting technique during a period that could last several generations.


Human predatory behavior and the social implications of communal hunting based on evidence from the TD10.2 bison bone bed at Gran Dolina (Atapuerca, Spain)”. Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, Palmira Saladié, Andreu Ollé, Juan Luis Arsuaga, José María Bermúdez de Castro,  Eudald Carbonell. Journal of Human Evolution. DOI