Pleistocene Micromammals and Their Predators at Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa

Les micromammifères du Pléistocène et leurs prédateurs. Grotte de Wonderwerk, Afrique du Sud

Abstract

Wonderwerk Cave has produced exceptionally large micromammalian samples that provides a range of information pertaining to taphonomy, and prey-predator ecology, which will improve the precision of environmental interpretation. Here, we examine these aspects for mid-Pleistocene strata 12 and 11, and conclude from the taphonomic evidence that the main predator responsible for the small mammal assemblages in the two lower-most strata at the site, was a category 1 predator, likely the barn owl Tyto alba. There is some slight influence of another predator in stratum 12 but this evidence is insufficient to significantly modify the taphonomic indication from the major predator. Differential horizontal and vertical distribution of prey skeletal remains within these strata indicates that there could have been two main roost areas, and that the predators occupied the cave seasonally, more intensively at times of good food availability under relatively benign conditions, and more ephemerally during harsher times. At present, this line of evidence does not provide any indication of the duration and nature of either conditions. Indications of exposure to fire have been distinguished in the microfaunal remains, with bones exhibiting calcination as well as being restricted spatially. None of these traits apparently fit with natural fires. Further modern comparative work will be required to develop a better understanding of those aspects related to fire.

Résumé

La grotte de Wonderwerk a livré d'abondantes collections de micromammifères qui fournissent une vaste gamme d'informations se rapportant à la taphonomie et à l'écologie des animaux prédateurs et de leurs proies, dont l'étude contribue à préciser les reconstitutions environnementales. Ces divers aspects sont analysés ici, pour la strate de Pléistocène moyen, 12 et 11, et nous ont permis de conclure que l'accumulation des mammifères de petite taille est principalement liée à l'action d'un prédateur de rang 1, la chouette effraie Tyto alba. Nous avons encore décelé la présence d'un autre prédateur dans la strate 12, mais son influence est minime et ne modifie aucunement la signature taphonomique du prédateur principal. La répartition différentielle horizontale et verticale des éléments squelettiques des proies au sein de la grotte semble indiquer la présence de deux zones de perchoir et d'une occupation saisonnière, plus intensive lors de bonnes disponibilités alimentaires liées à des conditions favorables, et plus éphémère pendant des périodes moins propices. A ce jour, le traitement de nos données ne procure aucun indice de la durée ni de la nature des conditions favorables et défavorables. Les restes de microfaune présentent quelques indices d'une exposition au feu; des os sont calcinés et leurs répartitions spatiales sont restreintes à des aires spécifiques. Ces résultats ne correspondent pas à la présence de feux naturels. De plus amples recherches comparatives modernes seront nécessaires pour tenter d'interpréter les données relatives aux traces de feu.

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Acknowledgments

We thank M. Chazan and L. Kolska Horwitz for their invitation to participate in the Wonderwerk Project, and to contribute to this special issue. DMA thanks P.B. Beaumont for his original request to study the Wonderwerk material and for arranging preliminary sorting of the samples; the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST) for supporting detailed sorting of the Pleistocene material; and Iziko Museums of South Africa (originally South African Museum) for providing logistical support. YFJ has been funded by a Canadian SSHRC grant awarded to M. Chazan, as well as the Spanish project CGL2010-19825 for analytical taphonomic work. Professor Pieter W.J. van Wyk and Dr. Laura Tormo provided technical support for SEM analyses. L. Kolska Horwitz also provided editorial input and greatly improved the manuscript with her comments.

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Correspondence to Yolanda Fernandez-Jalvo.

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Period: Earlier Stone Age

Country: South Africa: Northern Cape Province

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Fernandez-Jalvo, Y., Avery, D.M. Pleistocene Micromammals and Their Predators at Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa. Afr Archaeol Rev 32, 751–791 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-015-9206-7

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Keywords

  • Wonderwerk
  • Pleistocene
  • Micromammals
  • Taphonomy