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.
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.
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?
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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