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The taphonomy of fallow deer (Dama dama) skeletons from Denmark and its bearing on the pre-Weichselian occupation of northern Europe by humans


The ecological tolerances of Neandertals, their ability to subsist in the dense forests of full interglacials, and their capacity to colonize northern latitudes are the subject of ongoing debate. The site of Hollerup (northern Denmark) lies at the northern extreme of the Neandertal range. Dated by various techniques to the Eemian interglacial (MIS 5e), this site has yielded the remains of several purportedly butchered fallow deer (Dama dama). Taphonomic reanalysis of the remains from Hollerup and a handful of other Eemian-aged fallow deer skeletons cast doubt on the interpretation that they were humanly modified. We place this revised conclusion into the wider context of human settlement of southern Scandinavia during the Eemian. Other claims of Neandertal presence in the region rest on candidate Middle Paleolithic artifacts, all of which derive from surface contexts. With the fallow deer material removed as a secure indicator of Neandertal settlement of Denmark during the last interglacial, this lithic material must be viewed with renewed skepticism. While ecological and/or topographic factors may have played an important role in preventing Neandertals from penetrating into peninsular Scandinavia, we caution that geological, taphonomic, research-historical, and demographic factors may have significantly distorted our picture of their occupation in this region.

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  1. 1.

    Møhl-Hansen (1955) referred to each fallow deer find analyzed in his study sequentially, based on the year of discovery, from I to XIV. Although this numbering system is followed here for the sake of comparison, the finds carry official catalog numbers in the Zoologisk Museum.

  2. 2.

    The regression equation of Moore et al. (1995) was constructed with wear scores of both mandibles combined. For Find V, the right M1 could not be scored but was assumed to have the same wear score as the left M1; likewise, for Find IX, the left M2 could not be scored but was assumed to have the same wear score as the right M2.

  3. 3.

    In fact, this pattern differs little from the pollen zone scheme originally proposed by Jessen and Milthers (1928), which was based partly on Eemian-aged lacustrine deposits in Denmark.

  4. 4.

    While Abies is present at Monmark in southern Denmark, Gibbard and Glaister (2006, 343, 346) argue against its autochthonous origin.


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We would like to thank Kim Aaris-Sørensen for generously sharing some of his extensive knowledge on Denmark’s prehistory. His input and advice was greatly appreciated. We also extend our sincere gratitude to the staff at the Zoologisk Museum, especially Kristian Gregerson, Kaspar Hansen, and Martin MacNaughton, for their assistance in accessing the collections, the superb photography, and, in general, for providing such a wonderful work environment. We are very grateful to Lutz Kindler and an anonymous referee for taking the time to critically examine the manuscript; their comments improved it greatly. CPE’s participation was made possible by a Guest Researcher Grant from Aarhus University. CPE also thanks Travis Pickering for his advice during the early phases of this project. Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo and Christopher Nicholson assisted with the bootstrap and the GIS analyses, respectively. Any errors, however, are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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Correspondence to Charles P. Egeland.



Table 13 Osteometric data (measures in millimeters) from Danish assemblages

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Egeland, C.P., Nielsen, T.K., Byø, M. et al. The taphonomy of fallow deer (Dama dama) skeletons from Denmark and its bearing on the pre-Weichselian occupation of northern Europe by humans. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 6, 31–61 (2014).

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  • Neandertals
  • Denmark
  • Scandinavia
  • Fallow deer
  • Hollerup
  • Colonization
  • Taphonomy