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Neanderthal Diet: Inconsistencies in Archaeology and Science

Homo Neanderthalensis Adult Male Reconstruction. Neanderthal
The Neanderthal Diet: Inconsistencies in Archeology and Science. Credit: John Gurche and Chip Clark, CC-ZERO. / Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

There is some inconsistency in the knowledge surrounding the Neanderthal diet. Much, it seems, is due to rapid changes in the flow of unfolding research in archaeology and science.

Neanderthals are often associated with cavemen who were sluggish, primitive, and brutish pre-humans. This, however, is due to the misappropriation of the term as, in modern colloquial language, the term is used as an insult.

Yet in recent years, research has actually shown how incorrect such a description actually is. Contrary to popular opinion, for example, they in fact created tools, buried their dead, and spoke to each other, even if today it would be perceived as grunts,

If they were more intelligent than previously believed, then the question arises about the cause of their death. Could their diet have shaped their character and behavior? There are many who would like to go beyond stereotypes to discover what the diet of Neanderthals was.

False stereotypes

Neanderthals and their diet have actually been the subject of long, ongoing debate in research communities. That is because their perception hinders our understanding of their  their diet. Yet, some scholarly findings are counter-intuitive to cave-man imagery.

Did Neanderthals eat what contemporaries call the Paleo-Diet? Is too much protein hard on your liver and kidneys? Are new studies showing, beyond stereotypes, Neanderthals ate more seafood and nuts than we realize? Is the so-called Neanderthal diet a reminder that humans actually need to consume carbohydrates? How many vegetables were available to the Neanderthal?

The latest research

The latest research on the Neanderthal diet is in conflict because of creative conflicts on how studies are interpreted in comparison to previous research.

Beyond concerns with marketing for those in agricultural industries or diet gurus, it may be we can understand the Neanderthal diet better when considering specific scientific studies in geographic and historical contexts.

Crucially, we must understand that Neanderthals were often in motion. This impacted what they ate, specifically what foods they had access. Their mobility helped their pre-historic bodies process what they consumed in ways moderns, with even high standards of exercise, have difficulty.

Studies providing insight into evolution

Archaeologists study the diets of extinct humans such as the Neanderthals and early homo sapiens. These scholars are not busy-bodies. They are not avoiding their own issues in pursuit of gossip.

Understanding pre-historic ancestors’ diets can uncover insights into their evolutionary development and demise. And perhaps, this will provide revelations into contemporary human prospects.

A recent study of zinc from the tooth of a Neanderthal unearthed in Spain shows they were mainly carnivores, wherever they lived. This discovery helps explain why they became extinct.

Neanderthals and the end of the Ice Age

Neanderthals overlorded Europe and Western Asia during the last 200,000 years of the Ice Age, while homo sapiens were developing in Africa.

Their remains and characteristic stone tools are abundant across Europe, the near East, and in smaller numbers as far east as Tajikistan (which shares a border with China).

The Neanderthals lived in the heartlands of the Eurasian steppes (the largest grassland in the world, extending from Hungary to China), an area not rich in nutritional vegetables.

Nevertheless, studies of their campsites illustrate they ate nuts, fruits, mushrooms, shellfish, and other food that can be easily gathered. This tells contemporaries something crucial.

Their mobility

Thinking about Neanderthals requires remembering they are often in motion. This bursts the sluggish stereotype. One can then begin to see fluctuations in the world’s knowledge of the Neanderthal diet.

Neanderthals, a species constantly mobile, needed a high-calorie diet. The butchered remnants of mammoths, bison, horses, and reindeer, that Neanderthals left on their campsites reveal they pursued often treacherous or rapid animals.

Still, this doesn’t clarify if their diets were diverse among individuals and small groups across their massive geographical range.

A diet across diverse geographies

For the last two decades, scholarly breakthroughs in molecular biology have deepened archaeologists’ understanding of early human diets.

The cool conditions in northern Europe, such as France and Germany, have sustained collagen in fossil bones. With a method called stable isotope analysis, researchers can recover minute amounts of carbon and nitrogen from the collagen in early human bones. This uncovers where the protein Neanderthals ate came from.

Isotopes and collagen

Isotopes are groups of atoms belonging to the same element but which have different masses. Studies of these bones’ isotopes have shown Neanderthals in northern Europe got 80-90% of their protein from animals. This is similar to the stats for wolves and hyenas. This fits the stereotype of Neanderthals.

Yet, in the arid southern parts of Europe, researchers have less fortune. Collagen in fossil bone easily disintegrates in warmer weather, taking away hints of the southern Neanderthal diet.

Collagen is the protein that helps give structure and flexibility to your skin, bones, muscles, and connective tissues.

The value of zinc

Over the last year, archaeologists have found that zinc vestiges in Neanderthal bones also preserve information about the diet of the ancient communities they belonged. Neanderthals as predators often lived in small groups.

Paleoanthropologists generally agree that Neanderthals lived in groups of 10 to 15, counting children. That assessment is based on a few lines of evidence, including the limited remains at burial sites and the modest size of rock shelters.

Studies over the last few years of zinc isotopes show they have huge potential for unlocking clues about the evolution of life such as the rise of eukaryotes, a group of organisms humans belong to, and the complexity of marine foods.

Expert hunters

The latest research has not overturned that the Neanderthals were expert hunters. But, other factors have been discovered.

The zinc level in carnivores’ bones is lower than those of their prey. The difference is not affected by age, sex, or decay over time. Zinc ratios can be measured from samples as small as 1mg of bone. Even these tiny amounts allow an accurate assessment of an animal’s place in the food chain when they were alive.

Led by Dr. Klervia Jaouen, a researcher at the Observatory Midi Pyrénées in Toulouse, France, the study analyzed zinc and other isotopes in Neanderthal dental enamel from the Gabasa site in Spain.

In this type of analysis, the lower the proportion of zinc isotopes found in the studied bones the more likely the animal is to be a carnivore. This research is the first instance of zinc isotope analysis of Neanderthal specimens.

Zinc isotopes were analyzed from 43 teeth of 12 animal species living in grasslands around a cave in Catalonia, Spain called Los Moros I. These included carnivores such as wolves, hyenas, mountain wolves, omnivorous cave bears, and herbivores including ibex, red deer, horses, and rabbits. Apparently, in this specific environment, the Neanderthals ate less meat.

Interlocking food chains

The results of recent scholarship brought to life a food web of the Pleistocene steppe, a system of interlocking food chains from plants up to the top carnivores.

The zinc in the Neanderthal’s tooth had by far the lowest zinc value in the food web. This did reveal they were top-level carnivores.

Somewhere between 50,000-60,000 years ago, Neanderthals used small hand-axes to butcher mammoths. The bone heaped on Neanderthal campsites show they hunted big animals in large numbers.

These heaps appear even in areas of the landscape where humans would be at a disadvantage, such as at the edge of brooks and streams.

The new isotope study reveals Neanderthals’ main survival strategy was to hunt whatever animals could be found wherever they were in the world. Small animals and vegetables could only be garnishes or appetizers — especially in environments where these were negligible. Importantly, this is not a comment on what Neanderthals wished to eat. Rather, what they had available to eat.

More resilient with broader diets

Isotopes taken from sites across Europe from remains of the Homo sapiens groups who inherited Pleistocene Eurasia from the Neanderthals show a broader diet.

This suggests transitionally the Neanderthals also had a broader diet toward the end of their period on earth. Still, this didn’t make the Neanderthals more resilient.

Plants, birds, and fish were the main courses for these early humans.

The Pleistocene was a grassland-steppe ecosystem that dominated Siberia. It disappeared 10,000 years ago. This area had a remarkably unstable climate that changed.

The appearance and disappearance of environments and species

This means these early humans lived in sub-freezing, dry grasslands, and woodlands. And this stirred the great plurality of herbivores living in their midst.

Neanderthals transitionally experienced these environmental changes but didn’t survive like the next stage of human development.

Therefore, an omnivorous diet, eating both plants and animals, made the people who came after the Neanderthals far more resilient than their predecessors who relied on big game hunting.

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