Large ungulate mortality profiles and ambush hunting by Acheulean-age hominins at Elandsfontein, Western Cape Province, South Africa

Publication date: July 2019

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 107

Author(s): Henry T. Bunn


At Elandsfontein, a Middle Pleistocene marsh deposit preserves an abundance of mammalian fossils, along with a partial cranium of Homo heidelbergensis and a significant number of Acheulean stone tools. Most of this material was collected from the surface of eroding deposits in the 20th century, and it seemed to derive from a combination of hominin foraging activities and other, natural processes. Prior archaeological research on the fossil collection has emphasized natural, carnivore-related mortality and accumulation of large ungulates and downplayed the potential role of hominin hunting or scavenging at the marsh and more broadly at this time period in human evolution (Klein et al., 2007).

Here, reanalysis of the most abundant large bovid taxa yields new, comprehensive estimates of the minimum number of individual (MNI) bovids and their age at death. The MNI = 125 for six species of size group 3 bovids, and the MNI = 37 for one species of size group 4 bovid. Analysis of these mortality profiles on triangular graphs reveals a consistent living-structure (i.e., catastrophic) profile for the pooled size group 3 taxa but an attritional profile for the size group 4 taxon. These results are contrary to prior reports for the collection, and they may indicate a larger role for hunting by H. heidelbergensis than heretofore reconstructed. The Elandsfontein mortality profiles, when compared to older and younger profiles from Stone Age and modern contexts in Africa and Europe, indicate more broadly that capable ambush hunting of large ungulate prey occurred throughout the past two million years of evolution of the genus Homo.