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Neanderthal skull & diet The theory that Neanderthals disappeared due to a focused meat-based diet has been laid to rest by recent research by scientists from the Smithsonian and George Washington University. The evidence they collected shows that Neanderthals ate grains, seeds, and even palm fruits. Photo Credit: Amanda Henry

The theory that Neanderthals disappeared due to a focused meat-based diet has been laid to rest by recent research by scientists from the Smithsonian and George Washington University. The evidence they collected shows that Neanderthals ate grains, seeds, and even palm fruits. Photo Credit: Amanda Henry

Investigating the Diet of Neanderthals

By Stephanie Guzik, (Volunteer Science Writer)

 

Although no one can be sure what caused the Neanderthals to disappear, many theories have been proposed. One of those theories suggests that Neanderthals had a very focused diet. This theory stems from chemical studies of their bones which suggest they ate more protein than cave bears from the same sites. In addition, the majority of animal bones found in and around Neanderthal sites have tended to be from large prey, like horses and reindeer. Limited evidence of plant consumption has lead some scientists to believe that the Neanderthals only ate meat and therefore suffered because of their limited meat-based diet.

Fossilized tartar on Neanderthal tooth The evidence for the wide variety of the Neanderthal diet came from looking at fossilized tartar, or calculus, on multiple teeth from many different Neanderthal individuals. Photo Credit: Amanda Henry


The evidence for the wide variety of the Neanderthal diet came from looking at fossilized tartar, or calculus, on multiple teeth from many different Neanderthal individuals. Photo Credit: Amanda Henry

However, recent research from Smithsonian Archaeobiologist Dolores Piperno and her colleagues, Amanda Henry and Alison Brooks, has challenged and all-but laid to rest this large-game-only theory. Their research was published in January 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Piperno and her colleagues focused on evidence of plant consumption in Neanderthal populations. Prior to their publication, scientists had found remains of plants in Neanderthal sites. However, it was unclear in some cases whether those plants were used for food, or for other domestic purposes like for clothing or bedding.

Amanda Henry, then a pre-doctoral fellow in a research training partnership program between George Washington University and Smithsonian, worked with Piperno and Brooks, a George Washington University faculty member with a research associate appointment at the Smithsonian Human Origins Program and editor of NMNH’s AnthroNotes Bulletin in Anthropology for teachers, to investigate the role of plants in Neanderthal sites. Rather than looking at plant remains recovered from sediments at Neanderthal sites, they looked directly into the Neanderthal mouth.

Dental calculus on Neanderthal tooth The dental calculus, which is seen here at the end of the red arrow in a close-up photograph of a Neanderthal tooth, contained trapped microfossils of what this individual had eaten. Photo Credit: Amanda Henry


The dental calculus, which is seen here at the end of the red arrow in a close-up photograph of a Neanderthal tooth, contained trapped microfossils of what this individual had eaten. Photo Credit: Amanda Henry

Using a novel technique in Neanderthal research, Henry removed fossilized tartar, called dental calculus, from Neanderthal teeth. This calculus, like the plaque and tartar on our teeth, contains remnants of the food we have recently eaten. She used multiple teeth from three different Neanderthal individuals, one found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq and two from Spy Cave in Belgium. Scraping the calculus from Neanderthal teeth, Henry could virtually see what these three Neanderthals had been eating.

Technically, what the researchers could see with a microscope were microfossils of plant starches and phytoliths that had been preserved in the calculus as it fossilized. According to their results, these Neanderthal individuals had been consuming a wide variety of plants. They found evidence of grass seeds like wheat and barley, legumes, and even date palm fruit. Henry and her colleagues also noticed an interesting trend in some of the starches – while they could identify most of the fossils in the dental calculus samples, some of the starch microfossils they found appeared to be distorted. The kinds of distortion she saw were not the result of chewing, so what had caused these characteristic damages?

Comparison of starchesWhen Henry compared the microscopic structure of starches found in the Neanderthal calculus (top row), to a library of starches in the lab (bottom row), she could identify the starch and how it had been processed before eating. The library sample of uncooked barley in (b) matched the starch microfossil in (a), and the library sample of cooked barley in (d) matched the structure seen in the microfossil in (c). Together, these comparisons suggest that this Neanderthal consumed a starch similar to barley and that at least some of it was cooked before eating. Photo Credit: Amanda Henry

When Henry compared the microscopic structure of starches found in the Neanderthal calculus (top row), to a library of starches in the lab (bottom row), she could identify the starch and how it had been processed before eating. The library sample of uncooked barley in (b) matched the starch microfossil in (a), and the library sample of cooked barley in (d) matched the structure seen in the microfossil in (c). Together, these comparisons suggest that this Neanderthal consumed a starch similar to barley and that at least some of it was cooked before eating. Photo Credit: Amanda Henry

Henry went to the kitchen. Using fresh grains, she used every logical type of cooking she could think of – baking, roasting on a griddle, boiling in water—and made a reference library of cooked starches to compare side by side with the microfossils she had found. Comparing her library with the microfossils, Henry found that some of them like barley did, indeed, show evidence of having been cooked, which would have made such complex starches easier to digest.

Together, the research published by Piperno, Henry and Brooks shows that the Neanderthal diet was more extensive than once thought. Neanderthals appear to have made an effort to collect plants for consumption, and even took the further effort to cook some of them prior to eating. This research has shed new light on the sophistication of Neanderthals, who were thought to have been replaced in the progress of human origins by more advanced hominids. Ultimately, Neanderthals did disappear, but according to this study, a limited diet and inability to cook foods don’t seem to have been the reason for their demise.

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