Neanderthals/neandertals, popularly regarded as the 'stupid' cousins of modern humans, were actually capable of capturing the most impressive animals - and that takes some sense.   Dutch researcher Gerrit Dusseldorp analyzed their daily forays for food to gain insights into the complex behavior of the Neanderthal. His analysis revealed that the hunting was very knowledge intensive. 

Although it is now clear that Neanderthals were hunters and not scavengers, their exact hunting methods are still something of a mystery. Dusseldorp investigated just how sophisticated the Neanderthals' hunting methods really were. His analysis of two archaeological sites revealed that Neanderthals in warm forested areas preferred to hunt solitary game but that in colder, less forested areas they preferred to hunt more difficult herding animals. 

The Neanderthals were not easily intimated by their game. Rhinoceroses, bisons and even predators such as the brown bear were all on their menu. Dusseldorp established that just as for modern humans, the environment and the availability of food determined the choice of prey and the hunting method adopted. If the circumstances allowed it, Neanderthals lived in large groups and even the most attractive and difficult to catch prey were within their reach. 

Coordination and communication

Although herding animals are difficult to surprise and isolate, many such game lived on the open steppes. This ready supply attracted large groups of Neanderthals. That the Neanderthals were capable of hunting down such elusive game demonstrates that they had good coordination skills and could communicate well with each other. 

Each prey has a specific cost-benefit scenario. For example, game that are more difficult to catch yield more calories and have a more usable, thick fleece. Dusseldorp used these data to examine the Neanderthal's preferences. He also analyzed the prey of hyenas in the same manner. Hyenas were important competitors of Neanderthals as they had a similar dietary pattern. 

Dusseldorp demonstrated that Neanderthals, thanks to their intelligence, even surpassed hyenas at capturing the strongest game. All things being considered, the Neanderthals were skilled and highly intelligent hunters. So the idea that Neanderthals were brute musclemen can be dismissed. 

This study was part of NWO project "Thoughtful Hunters? The Archaeology of Neandertal Communication and Cognition." Dusseldorp is continuing his research with a postdoc position in Johannesburg where he will focus on the modern humans that evolved in Africa.