Doctoral student makes discovery on Neanderthal eating habits

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A doctoral student studying hominid paleobiology has pioneered a method for analyzing reindeer bones from around 65,000 to 12,000 years ago, an accomplishment that allows scientists to further understand the eating habits of early humans.

Early humans flocked to reindeer meat when the temperature dropped, J. Tyler Faith discovered.

“We see a steady increase in the abundance of reindeer, associated with declines in summer temperature,” Faith said.

Faith analyzed bones from the Grotte XVI archaeological site in southern France in order to better understand the relationship between early humans and animals, and how this was affected by changes in the environment.

Faith’s new findings help to understand the differences between Neanderthals and the modern man. He said differences in hunting behavior cannot explain why Neanderthals dropped out of existence between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago.

“Variation in the types of animals hunted and the parts of those animals that were exploited and processed by the human and Neanderthal occupants of Grotte XVI can be explained largely by environmental change, rather than behavioral or technological differences,” Faith said.

His study was called “important, insightful and innovative” by Donald Grayson, a renowned Grotte XVI researcher and professor at the University of Washington, in an interview with Discovery News.

Faith has previously worked to develop “quantitative methods for measuring changes in how humans butchered and transported large animal remains.”

He has also done research at the Shompole conservation area in southern Kenya, where he studied animal bones as a way to understand living wildlife.

For his dissertation, Faith is researching the extinction of large mammals in southern Africa. He hopes to determine whether human hunting pressure or changes to the environment contributed to the extinction of large mammals.

Including this study, Faith has been published five times in The Journal of Archeological Science, and has also been featured in Discovery News. He recently submitted work to the Journal of Human Evolution. Faith said he hopes to continue researching in East and southern Africa after he receives his Ph.D. and eventually hopes to become a professor at a research-oriented university.

“I have had a great time at GWU – I couldn’t be happier anywhere else,” Faith said. “I was excited by the many research opportunities available here in my program and at the National Museum of Natural History.”

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