Crazy like a fox? How the study of archaeological fox remains can help to understand human behavior in the Late Pleistocene of the Swabian Jura (Germany)

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Dokumentart: PhDThesis
Date: 2020-11-27
Language: English
Faculty: 7 Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät
Department: Geographie, Geoökologie, Geowissenschaft
Advisor: Conard, Nicholas J. (Prof. Dr.)
Day of Oral Examination: 2020-11-04
DDC Classifikation: 550 - Earth sciences
560 - Paleontology; paleozoology
590 - Animals (Zoology)
930 - History of ancient world to ca. 499
Keywords: Schwäbische Alb , Altpleistozän , Fuchs
Other Keywords:
Diet reconstruction
Human animal interaction
stable isotopes
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In many countries and fables, characteristics such as "smart" and "sly" as well as other human-like behavior have been attributed to foxes for a long time. However, is it also smart and sly to invoke foxes to prove human behavior from a long time ago?
Remains of arctic and red foxes (Vulpes lagopus and Vulpes vulpes) are known from almost every European Late Pleistocene archaeological site (about 100 to 13 kyr ago). Of particular interest in archaeological studies are their canines, found in the cave sites of the Swabian Jura (Baden-Württemberg, Germany), originating from Aurignacian (about 42 to 34 kyr ago) and Gravettian (about 34 to 30 kyr ago). The canines were perforated by early modern humans and most likely worn as pendants or ornaments on clothes. Cut marks on fox bones show that fur and meat were important as well. With my PhD thesis, I would like to explore beyond the obvious evidences the following three questions: How did Neanderthals in the Middle Palaeolithic (about 100 to 42 kyr ago) and modern humans in the Late Palaeolithic (about 42 to 14 kyr ago), hunt and use foxes? Which feeding habits did Late Pleistocene foxes follow and were they influenced by Neanderthals or modern humans, for example by human hunting behavior? Could foxes be used as an indicator of Palaeolithic occupation intensity and human impact on the Late Pleistocene environment? 
To answer these questions, I focused on the cave sites of the central Swabian Jura (Ach- and Lonetal) and the Hegau Jura, located at the southwestern edge of the Swabian Jura. To discuss my first question, I used 26 published zooarchaeological reports from twelve sites in the Ach- and Lonetal and re-examined the abundance of foxes over time using Bayesian statistics. I found out that foxes were more abundant in the archaeological record from the Aurignacian period onwards and that this was due to hunting activities by modern humans. Traps were likely used for hunting foxes, some of them baited with food leftovers and set at game passes in the vicinity of the inhabited caves. In contrast, foxes from the Middle Palaeolithic layers entered the caves naturally. To answer my second question, I used the analysis of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes from the collagen of archaeological fox bones and reconstructed both the diet and the trophic niches. Thereby I could prove three basic feeding behaviors, one of them was influenced by humans. Some foxes from the Upper Palaeolithic showed synanthropic behavior, i.e. an adaptation to humans and their food resources, and this already about 30,000 years before the Neolithic. To address my last question, I used the knowledge gained from the previous two questions. This allowed me to establish a positive correlation between the abundance of foxes and the intensity of human settlement, as well as the occurrence of synanthropic foxes with the human population density and the hunting pressure on the megafauna in that region. Foxes can thus be used as a proxy for human activities and population density. The opportunistic foxes reacted to the environment influenced by human behavior by adapting their feeding strategies already in the early Palaeolithic periods.

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