Neanderthals had big teeth

Neanderthals ate meat, vegetables, berries, grains and nuts. It was long thought they were strict carnivores, based on bones of mammoth, reindeer and other animals, found at their campsites. But fairly recent studies of their teeth, DNA and even feces indicated their diet included a lot of foods that were not meat. Data suggests that during cold periods, Neanderthals, especially those living in open, grassland areas, subsisted mostly on meat. During warmer times in greener environments they supplement their diet with plants, seeds and nuts.

Based on the presence of animal bones at Neanderthal sites, Neanderthals ate large animals such as cave bears,aurochs (large, long-horned wild oxen), bison, elk and even wooly mammoths. It was previously thought Neanderthals scavenged these animals and were incapable of hunting them, but recent evidence suggests that they hunted these animals in groups (See Below).

Based on remains found in Neanderthal caves, Neanderthals also consumed edible plants, shellfish, rabbits, tortoises, and small reptiles and rotting carcasses. But the lack of milling tools and other evidence found at Neanderthal sites indicates plants were a supplementary food “more like salads, snacks and deserts than energy-rich staple food” according to Mary Stone of the University of Arizona. Based on studies of the growth of tooth enamel, Erik Trinkaus of Washington University found that more than 70 percent of the Neanderthal fossils he studied showed one brush with starvation.

Bones found at Neanderthal sites have marks from stone tools, most likely made when removing meat from them. A hearth found in one Neanderthal cave is not believed to have been used in cooking but rather to prepare the carcasses (heating the bones, for example, makes it easier break them to remove the marrow inside). It has been suggested that fire may have been used not so much to cook food but to defrost frozen meat so it could eaten.

Ewen Callaway wrote in NewScienceLife: “Chemical signatures locked into bone suggest the Neanderthals got the bulk of their protein from large game, such as mammoths, bison and reindeer. The anatomically modern humans that were living alongside them had more diverse tastes. As well as big game, they also had a liking for smaller mammals, fish and seafood. “It seems modern humans had a much broader diet, in terms of using fish or aquatic birds, which Neanderthals didn’t seem to do,” says Michael Richards, a biological anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and the University of British Columbia in Canada.” [Source: Ewen Callaway, NewScienceLife, August 12, 2009]

Modern Humans 400,000-20,000 Years Ago (35 articles); First Villages, Early Agriculture and Bronze, Copper and Late Stone Age Humans (33 articles)

Websites and Resources on Neanderthals: Wikipedia: Neanderthals Wikipedia ; Neanderthals Study Guide ; Neandertals on Trial, from PBS; The Neanderthal Museum ; The Neanderthal Flute, by Bob Fink Websites and Resources on Prehistoric Art: Chauvet Cave Paintings ; Cave of Lascaux; Trust for African Rock Art (TARA); Bradshaw Foundation; Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology, by Peter Brown

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Neanderthal Diet Depended on Where They Lived

Neanderthals ate a varied diet that often depended on where they lived. Analysis of teeth of Spanish Neanderthals shows they ate pine nuts, mushrooms and moss while an analysis of teeth of Neanderthals in Belgium showed they regularly ate woolly rhinoceros. “Neanderthals, not surprisingly, are doing different things, exploiting different things, in different places,” Keith Dobney, a bioarchaeologist and co-author of the research from the University of Liverpool, told The Guardian.

cave lion and hyena bones found at Neanderthal Budapest Erd campsite

Nicola Davis wrote in The Guardian:“Writing in the journal Nature, Dobney and an international team of colleagues describe how they analysed ancient DNA – from microbes and food debris – preserved in the dental tartar, or calculus, of three Neanderthals dating from 42,000 to 50,000 years ago. Two of the individuals were from the El Sidrón cave in Spain while one was from the Spy Cave in Belgium.he results reveal that northern Neanderthals had a wide-ranging diet, with evidence of a mushroom known as grey shag in their tartar, together with traces of woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep. [Source: Nicola Davis, The Guardian, March 8, 2017]

“By contrast Neanderthals from El Sidrón showed no evidence of meat eating – instead they appear to have survived on a mixture of forest moss, pine nuts and a mushroom known as split gill. The difference was further backed up by DNA-based analysis of the diversity and make-up of microbial communities that had lived in the Neanderthals’ mouths. The findings support previous studies suggesting that the Neanderthals of El Sidrón ate little meat, although Dobney cautioned against drawing broader conclusions, citing the small sample size of the latest study. “I hesitate to say that we have clear, definitive proof that Neanderthals in Spain were vegetarian,” he said. |=|

In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Yoanda Fernandeze-Jalvo of the National Museum of Natural Science in Madrid and Christopher Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London wrote they found bones from monk seals and common and bottlenose dolphins along with Neanderthal tools in caves at a 30,000-year-old site on a beach in Gibralter. The finding indicates that only did Neanderthals collect shellfish and mollusks they also ate seals and dolphins although its not clear whether they hunted these creatures or just found them washed up on the beach. The presence of a large number of immature seals, however, suggests they may have been hunted while on shore during breeding season. .

Dental Plaque DNA Provides Insights Into Neanderthal Diet and Life

In a study published in Nature on March 9, 2017, an international team led by the University of Adelaide and the University of Liverpool found that ancient DNA found in the dental plaque of Neanderthals found in El Sidrón cave in northwest Spain has provided remarkable new insights into Neanderthal behavior, diet and evolutionary history, including their use of plant-based medicine to treat pain and illness. “Dental plaque traps microorganisms that lived in the mouth and pathogens found in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, as well as bits of food stuck in the teeth – preserving the DNA for thousands of years,” says lead author Dr Laura Weyrich, a research fellow with Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) and Dental School at the University of Adelaide. “Genetic analysis of that DNA ‘locked-up’ in plaque, represents a unique window into Neandertal lifestyle – revealing new details of what they ate, what their health was like and how the environment impacted their behaviour.” [Source: University of Adelaide and the Spanish National Research Council, March 9, 2017 **/ ]

“According to the University of Adelaide: “The international team analysed and compared dental plaque samples from four Neanderthals found at the cave sites of Spy in Belgium and El Sidrón in Spain. These four samples range from 42,000 to around 50,000 years old and are the oldest dental plaque ever to be genetically analysed. **/

wild horse bones from the Erd campsite

Professor Alan Cooper, Director of ACAD, said: “We found that the Neandertals from Spy Cave consumed woolly rhinoceros and European wild sheep, supplemented with wild mushrooms. Those from El Sidrón Cave on the other hand showed no evidence for meat consumption, but appeared instead to have a largely vegetarian diet, comprising pine nuts, moss, mushrooms and tree bark – showing quite different lifestyles between the two groups. One of the most surprising finds, however, was in a Neanderthal from El Sidrón, who suffered from a dental abscess visible on the jawbone. The plaque showed that he also had an intestinal parasite that causes acute diarrhoea, so clearly he was quite sick. He was eating poplar, which contains the pain killer salicylic acid (the active ingredient of aspirin), and we could also detect a natural antibiotic mould (Penicillium) not seen in the other specimens.” **/

Professor Keith Dobney, from the University of Liverpool, said: “Not only can we now access direct evidence of what our ancestors were eating, but differences in diet and lifestyle also seem to be reflected in the commensal bacteria that lived in the mouths of both Neanderthals and modern humans. Major changes in what we eat have, however, significantly altered the balance of these microbial communities over thousands of years, which in turn continue to have fundamental consequences for our own health and well-being. This extraordinary window on the past is providing us with new ways to explore and understand our evolutionary history through the microorganisms that lived in us and with us.”**/

“The multidisciplinary team which worked at El Sidrón consisted of palaeontologist Antonio Rosas from CSIC’s National Natural Science Museum, the geneticist, Carles Lalueza-Fox, from the CSIC / Institute of Evolutionary Biology’s Pompeu Fabra University mixed centre, and the archaeologist, Marco de la Rasilla, from the University of Oviedo in Asturias. At El Sidrón, the team developed a pioneering protocol, known as ‘clean excavation’, which minimises the risk of contaminating the early DNA with that of modern-day human DNA from the researchers working on the cave excavation. This allowed both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA to be extracted from teeth and skeletal remains.” **/

Dietary Differences Between Modern Human and Neanderthals

Ewen Callaway wrote in NewScienceLife: “Chemical signatures locked into bone suggest the Neanderthals got the bulk of their protein from large game, such as mammoths, bison and reindeer. The anatomically modern humans that were living alongside them had more diverse tastes. As well as big game, they also had a liking for smaller mammals, fish and seafood. “It seems modern humans had a much broader diet, in terms of using fish or aquatic birds, which Neanderthals didn’t seem to do,” says Michael Richards, a biological anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and the University of British Columbia in Canada.” [Source: Ewen Callaway, NewScienceLife, August 12, 2009]

“Because our bones are constantly destroyed and rebuilt while we are alive, the atoms that make up collagen hold a record of what we’ve eaten. “When you take a sample of a bone you’re getting all those breakfasts, lunches and dinners for 20 years,” Richards says. Measurements of the abundance of heavy isotopes of carbon and nitrogen hold the key. Marine environments contain a higher proportion of heavy carbon atoms (carbon-13) than land ecosystems, so lots of carbon-13 in the recovered collagen points to a seafood diet. Meanwhile, heavy nitrogen (nitrogen-15) tends to build up as the atom moves up the food chain, from plants to herbivores to carnivores. **

“High levels of heavy nitrogen can also come from a diet with lots of freshwater fish. Aquatic food webs tend to contain more steps than terrestrial ecosystems, so large fish often have higher levels of heavy nitrogen than land predators. By comparing the relative levels of these isotopes with those of animals found nearby, researchers can sketch the broad outlines of an ancient diet, if not every last calorie. **

“Carbon and nitrogen isotopes suggest that Neanderthals living between 37,000 and 120,000 years ago in what are now France, Germany, Belgium and Croatia got the bulk of their protein from large land herbivores, Richards and Trinkaus conclude. Levels of heavy nitrogen in Neanderthal bones invariably exceed levels in surrounding herbivores, and tend to match levels in that period’s carnivores, such as hyenas. Some modern humans living between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago opted for more varied diets. High levels of carbon-13 in two samples from Italy and France are evidence for a diet that probably included some marine fish or seafood. **

mollusks and barnacles found in Neanderthal cave in Spain

Modern Humans and Neanderthals Had Different Dietary Strategies

According to Plos One: “When fluctuating climates in the Ice Age altered habitats, modern humans may have adapted their diets in a different way than Neandertals, according to a study published in PLOS ONE by Sireen El Zaatari of the University of Tübingen, Germany, and colleagues. [Source: Plos One press release,, April 27, 2016 \^^/]

“The Neandertal lineage survived for hundreds of thousands of years despite the severe temperature fluctuations of the Ice Age. The reasons for their decline around 40 thousand years ago remain unclear. The authors of this study investigated the possible influence of dietary strategies using the fossilized molars of 52 Neandertals and Upper Paleolithic Homo sapiens (modern humans). They analysed the type and degree of microwear on the teeth to attempt to draw conclusions about diet type and to establish a relationship with prevalent climactic conditions. \^^/

“They found that as the climate fluctuated and habitats altered, Neandertals may have adapted their diet to the resources that were most readily available, eating mainly meat when in open, cold steppe environments, and supplementing their diet with more plants, seeds, and nuts when in forested landscapes. Meanwhile, modern humans seemed to stick to their dietary strategy regardless of slight environmental changes and retained a relatively large proportion of plant-based foods in their diet. “To be able to do this, they may have developed tools to extract dietary resources from their environment”” says Sireen El Zaatari. The researchers concluded that Upper Paleolithic modern humans’ differing dietary strategies may have given them an advantage over the Neandertals. \^^/

“The Neandertals may have maintained their opportunistic approach of eating whatever was available in their changing habitats over hundreds of thousands of years. However, modern humans seem to have invested more effort in accessing food resources and significantly changed their dietary strategies over a much shorter period of time, in conjunction with their development of tools, which may have given them an advantage over Neanderthals. \^^/

“The European Neandertal and modern human individuals analysed in this study do not temporally overlap and thus would not inform us about direct dietary competition between these two groups. Nevertheless, if the behavioral differences detected in this study were already established at the time of contact between them, these differences might have contributed to the demise of the Neandertals and the survival of modern humans.” \^^/

Neanderthals May Have Eaten the Contents of Other Animals’ Stomachs

New thinking put forward by two researchers at London's Natural History Museum suggests that evidence that Neanderthals consumed medicinal plant and self-medicated themselves may in fact be evidence that they ate the contents of animals' stomachs which are said to have “a consistency and a flavour that is not unlike cream cheese.” In a paper by Laura Buck and Chris Stringer and published in 2013 in Quaternary Science Reviews, Stringer argues that the tiny pieces of plant found in Neanderthal teeth could have come from a very different source. [Source: Robin McKie, The Guardian, October 20, 2013 |=|]

The pieces of plant may have become embedded in the stomach of deer, bison and other herbivores that had then been hunted and eaten by Neanderthals.“"Many hunter-gatherers, including the Inuit, Cree and Blackfeet, eat the stomach contents of animals such as deer because they are good source of vitamin C and trace elements," Stringer told The Guardian. "For example, among the Inuit, the stomach contents of an animal are considered a special delicacy with a consistency and a flavour that is not unlike cream cheese. At least that is what I am told." |=|

Robin McKie wrote in The Guardian: “The crucial point about the stomach contents of grazing animals is that they are filled with fragments of the plants that those herbivores had consumed shortly before they were stalked and killed. When those contents are then chewed and eaten, the tiny pieces of grass and herbs are transferred to their hunter's teeth and get embedded there. Then, when their devourers are themselves killed, or die of natural causes, shortly afterwards, those plant fragments are preserved in their teeth for later analysis by modern palaeontologists. "The mistake is to think that because you find plant fragments in teeth that they must have got there because these carnivores – in this case Neanderthals – had consumed them as part of a carefully constructed diet or were taken because it was realised that certain herbs and grasses had health-promoting properties," added Buck. "In fact, they may have got there purely because Neanderthals liked to eat the stomach contents of some of the animals they killed." |=|

“This point is backed by Stringer. "Neanderthals lived in Europe during many cold periods and it is interesting to note that many modern human hunter-gatherers who eat stomach contents today, such as the Inuit, also live in northerly regions. It is a behaviour often displayed by a cold-adapted species, in other words. And if you have gone to the time and trouble of hunting a large herbivore, you would not miss out on a nutritious part such as the stomach." |=|

“However, Stringer and Buck stress that they are not arguing that Neanderthals definitely did not eat vegetables or could not have used certain herbs as medicines. "What we are saying is that the evidence of plant fragments in Neanderthal teeth is simply not strong enough to prove that they did so. There are other explanations, including the proposal that they ate these organs of the animals they killed. They had the stomach for it, if you want to put it that way."” |=|

Teeth from Krapina, Croatia

Did Neanderthals Boil Their Food?

At a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Austin, Texas in April 2014, University of Michigan paleontologist John Speth said “I think it’s pretty likely the Neanderthals boiled.” Based on evidence from ancient bones, spears, and porridge, and a lack of any kind of pot, Speth believes speculates Neanderthals Neanderthals boiled using only a skin bag or a birch bark tray, relying on a trick of chemistry: that water will boil at a temperature below the ignition point of almost any container, even flammable bark or hides. “You can boil in just about anything as long as you take it off the flame pretty quickly,” Speth says. [Source: Dan Vergano, National Geographic, April 30, 2014 |~|]

Dan Vergano of National Geographic wrote: “While conceding that Neanderthals were handy with wood and fire, paleontologists such as Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona in Tucson want to let Speth’s idea simmer for a while before they swallow it. “Whether they went as far as boiling stuff in birch bark containers or in hides is harder to evaluate,” Stiner says. “I am not convinced.” |~|

“The use of fire by humans goes back more than 300,000 years in Europe, where evidence is seen in Neanderthal hearths. But most research has supported the idea that Stone Age boiling, which relied on heating stones in fire pits and dropping them into water, arrived on the scene too late for Neanderthals. Evidence of cracked “boiling stones” in caves used by early modern humans, for example, goes back only about 26,000 years, too recent for Neanderthals. And pottery for more conventional boiling appears to be only about 20,000 years old. |~|

“But who needs boiling stones or pots? Speth suggests that Neanderthals boiled foods in birch bark twisted into trays, a technology that prehistoric people used to boil maple syrup from tree sap. Archaeologists have demonstrated that Neanderthals relied on birch tar as an adhesive for hafting spear points as long as 200,000 years ago. Making birch tar requires clever cooking in an oxygen-free container, says paleontologist Michael Bisson of Canada’s McGill University. “I’ve burned myself trying to do it,” Bisson says, adding that Neanderthals were plenty clever when it came to manipulating birch. They likely ignited rolled-up birch bark “cigars” and plunged them into holes to cook the tar in an oxygen-free environment. f the tar is exposed to oxygen in the air as it cooks, “it explodes,” Bisson adds. |~|

“Supporting the boiling idea, Speth said that animal bones found in Neanderthal settings are 98 percent free of scavenger’s gnawing marks, which he says suggests the fat had been cooked off. And some grains found in the teeth of a Neanderthal buried in Iraq’s Shanidar Cave site appear to have been cooked, according to a 2011 Proceedings of the National Academies of Science report. “It is speculative, but I think it is pretty likely that they knew how to boil,” Speth says.

In a separate talk at the meeting, University of Michigan paleontologist Andrew White noted recent evidence that Neanderthal mothers weaned their children at an earlier age than human mothers typically do. He said the early transition from milk to food supports the theory that Neanderthals boiled their youngsters’ food to make it more digestible.

Neanderthals in Southern Spain Lived Mainly on Seafood 150,000 Years Ago

Neanderthals occupying caves in southern Spain lived on a diet of seafood earlier than previously thought — 150,000 years ago — archaeological findings show. Fiona Govan wrote in The Telegraph: “Archaeological examination of a cave in Torremolinos unearthed early tools used to crack open shellfish collected off rocks along the Iberian coast and found fossilised remains of the early meals. The discovery is the earliest of its kind in northern Europe and shows that early man were fish eaters in Europe some 100,000 years earlier than previously thought and that that early coastal cavemen supplemented their hunter/gatherer diet of nuts, fruits and meat from animals such as antelopes and rabbits with seafood. [Source: Fiona Govan, The Telegraph, September 15, 2011 /~/]

“A team of archaeologists from Seville University and scientists from the National Council for Scientific Investigation (CSIC) published their research this week after a lengthy investigation involving the scientific dating of fossilised remains from the cave. The Cueva Bajondillo on Andalusia’s southern coast near Malaga contained remains of burned mussel shells and barnacles indicating that Middle Paleolithic hominins had collected and cooked the shellfish for consumption. /~/

“The discovery suggests that Neanderthals in Europe and Archaic Homo sapiens in Africa were following parallel behavioural trajectories but with different evolutionary outcomes, the paper claims. “It provides evidence for the exploitation of coastal resources by Neanderthals at a much earlier time than any of those previously reported,” said Miguel Cortés Sánchez who led the Seville University team. “The use of shellfish resources by Neanderthals in southern Spain started some 150,000 years ago,” the paper concluded. “It was almost contemporaneous to Pinnacle Point (in South Africa) when shellfishing is first documented in archaic modern humans.”“ /~/

Artifacts from La Ferrassie in France

Neanderthals Ate Salmon in the Caucasus 45,000 Years Ago reported: “In a joint study, Professor Hervé Bocherens of the University of Tübingen, Germany, together with colleagues from the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg, Russia and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium have found at a cave in the Caucasus Mountains indirect hints of fish consumption by Neandertals. Bone analyses ruled out cave bears and cave lions to have consumed the fish whose remains were found at the Caucasian cave. [Source:, September 17, 2013 =]

“On the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, called Kudaro 3, the bone fragments of large salmon, migrating from marine water to their freshwater spawning places, were found in the Middle Palaeolithic archaeological layers, dated to around 42 to 48,000 years ago, and probably deposited by Neandertals. Such remains suggested that fish was consumed by these archaic Humans. However, large carnivores, such as Asiatic cave bears (Ursus kudarensis) and cave lions (Panthera spelaea) were also found in the cave and could have brought the salmon bones in the caves. =

“To test this hypothesis, the possible contribution of marine fish in the diet of these carnivores was evaluated using carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotopes in faunal bone collagen, comparing these isotopic signatures between predators and their potential prey. The results indicate that salmons were neither part of the diet of cave bears (they were purely vegetarian, like their European counterparts) or cave lions (they were predators of herbivores from arid areas). =

“This study provides indirect support to the idea that Middle Palaeolithic Hominins, probably Neandertals, were able to consume fish when it was available, and that therefore, the prey choice of Neandertals and modern humans was not fundamentally different,” says Hervé Bocherens. He assumes that more than diet differences were certainly involved in the demise of the Neandertals.” =

Were Neanderthals Largely Vegetarians?

Scientists revised their view that Neanderthals were primarily meat eaters after finding traces of cooked food seeds and legumes on the fossilised teeth of Neanderthals found in caves. Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: “The researchers found remnants of date palms, seeds and legumes – which include peas and beans – on the teeth of three Neanderthals uncovered in caves in Iraq and Belgium. Among the scraps of food embedded in the plaque on the Neanderthals' teeth were particles of starch from barley and water lilies that showed tell-tale signs of having been cooked. The Ice Age leftovers are believed to be the first direct evidence that the Neanderthal diet included cooked plants as well as meat obtained by hunting wild animals. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, December 27, 2010]

“Dolores Piperno, who led the study at the archaeobiology laboratory at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, said the work showed Neanderthals were more sophisticated diners than many academics gave them credit for. Piperno said the discoveries even raised the possibility that male and female Neanderthals had different roles in acquiring and preparing food. "The plants we found are all foods associated with early modern human diets, but we now know Neanderthals were exploiting those plants and cooking them, too. When you cook grains it increases their digestibility and nutritional value," she added. |=|

Piperno said: "The whole question of why Neanderthals went extinct has been controversial for a long time and dietary issues play a significant part in that. Some scholars claim the Neanderthals were specialised carnivores hunting large game and weren't able to exploit a diversity of plant foods. As far as we know, there has been until now no direct evidence that Neanderthals cooked their foods and very little evidence they were consuming plants routinely." |=|

“Piperno's team was given permission to study the remains of three Neanderthal skeletons. One was unearthed at the Shanidar cave in Iraq and lived 46,000 years ago. The other two were recovered from the Cave of Spy in Belgium, and date to around 36,000 years ago. The scientists examined three teeth from the Iraqi Neanderthal and two from each of the Belgium specimens. To look for traces of food on them, they scraped fossilised plaque from each tooth and looked at it under a microscope. The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. ||=|

“Grains from plants are tiny, but have distinct shapes that the scientists identified by comparing them with a collection at the Smithsonian's herbarium. The researchers also cooked a range of plants to see how their appearance changed. They collected 73 starch grains from the Iraqi Neanderthal's teeth. Some of these belonged to barley or a close relative, and appeared to have been boiled in water. "The evidence for cooking is strong. The starch grains are gelatinised, and that can only come from heat associated with cooking," Piperno said. Similar tests on the Belgian Neanderthals' teeth revealed traces of cooked starch that probably came from parts of water lilies that store carbohydrates. Other cooked starch grains were traced back to sorghum, a kind of grass. |=|

“In Piperno's opinion, the research undermines one theory that suggests early modern humans drove the Neanderthals to extinction by having a more sophisticated and robust diet. The work also raises questions about whether Neanderthals organised themselves in a similar way to early hunter-gatherer groups, she said. "When you start routinely to exploit plants in your diet, you can arrange your settlements according to the season. In two months' time you want to be where the cereals are maturing, and later where the date palms are ready to pick. It sounds simplistic, but this is important in terms of your overall cognitive abilities. In early human groups, women typically collected plants and turned them into food while men hunted. To us, and it is just a suggestion, this brings up the possibility that there was some sexual division of labour in the Neanderthals and that is something most people did not think existed." |=|

Questions and Mutations Related to Neanderthal Plant-Eating

On studies that appear to show that Neanderthal didn’t eat many plants. Ewen Callaway wrote in NewScienceLife: Hervé Bocherens, a biological anthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany “cautions against drawing too many conclusions from 13 Neanderthal skeletons, all unearthed in northern Europe. Collagen doesn’t survive well in warmer climates, so researchers know less about the diet of Neanderthals in southern Europe and the Middle East, he says. “There is evidence from a number of southern European sites in Portugal, Gibraltar, Spain and Italy that Neanderthals did exploit marine resources at times and, I would say, probably to a significant extent,” says Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London. His team recently found cut marks on seal and dolphin bones in a Neanderthal cave in Gibraltar. Isotopes recovered from bone also ignore important sources of food that don’t contain much protein. “I’m sure they’re having vegetables,” says Richards. “But they’re not eating enough that it’s being measured.” [Source: Ewen Callaway, NewScienceLife, August 12, 2009]

“A new study of ancient DNA offers preliminary support for that conclusion. Neanderthals possessed a gene mutation that would have meant they couldn’t taste bitter chemicals found in many plants. There has been speculation that this mutation, which occurs in a taste receptor gene called TAS2R38, is beneficial to humans because it makes vitamin-packed vegetables more palatable. It probably arose in the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals more than a million years ago. The gene encodes a receptor that detects a chemical called phenylthiocarbamide, which is closely related to compounds produced by broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. **

“If vegetables weren’t part of the Neanderthal diet, the species would probably have lost the non-tasting mutation, says Carles Lalueza-Fox, a geneticist at the Institute of Biological Evolution in Barcelona, Spain, whose team sequenced TAS2R38 in 39,000-year-old DNA from a Neanderthal femur recovered in the El Sidrón cave in north-west Spain. **

“This Neanderthal’s DNA tested positive for tasting and non-tasting versions of TAS2R38, suggesting he or she boasted copies of both alleles of the gene – and with it the ability to taste bitter foods. The presence of the non-tasting allele in this individual suggests it may have been beneficial to some Neanderthals. “It doesn’t mean they were eating Brussels sprouts or cabbage but it could be similar vegetables,” Lalueza-Fox says.” **

Cave Hyena shit

Oldest Human Poop Also Reveals Neanderthals Ate Veggies

The world’s oldest human fecal fossils, dated to 50,000 years ago, suggests that Neanderthals ate a lot of food that wasn’t meat — including berries, nuts, and vegetables — according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.Dan Vergano wrote in National Geographic: “The oldest poop samples turned up at the site of El Salt, a collection of ancient hearths in southern Spain. The researchers were originally investigating the fire pits for chemical traces of fats from cooked meats. Amid the search, they unexpectedly found some fossil feces, or coprolites, in a top hearth layer dated to 50,000 years ago. "I was quite surprised we found these samples in a place where they would eat," says MIT geoarchaeologist Ainara Sistiaga, who led the study. "We think they were deposited after they stopped using the fire pit." [Source: Dan Vergano, National Geographic, June 25, 2014 |]

“For clues to the Neanderthal diet, lab samples of the feces were pulverized and examined for spectroscopic identification of their chemistry. In particular, the researchers looked for compounds created when bacteria aid digestion of meat and vegetables. The results identified four fats associated with meat. But two cholesterol-related compounds that are an unambiguous fingerprint of plants also turned up. "They were eating a lot of meat," Sistiaga says. "But we believe they were omnivorous." Although the chemistry analysis cannot specify which plant foods Neanderthals were eating, pollen analysis suggests that berries, nuts, and tubers grew in the region when the archaic humans lived in Spain. Mammoth, reindeer, and red deer bones widely found at Neanderthal sites had led paleontologists to see them as dedicated meat eaters. But more recent studies that uncovered plant remains at Neanderthal sites, on their tools, and even in their dental plaque had hinted that they were not strict carnivores. |

“The present study is the first to provide direct chemical analysis that Neanderthals ate vegetables—the most interesting part of the study, says paleontologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, who was not part of the research. "Their results are confirming an idea that is still somewhat new in the field," says paleobiologist Amanda Henry of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. But she cautions that more evidence showing that the fecal samples undoubtedly came from Neanderthals, and not from another omnivorous animal such as bears, would be reassuring. |

“Sisiaga's team argues that the digestive compounds found in their analysis are present in ratios found only in humans. But Henry says by email that their argument would be bolstered with a deeper analysis: "I think the paper would have been stronger if they had used an independent means of identifying the coprolite, perhaps looking for human DNA or proteins." The compounds tested for in the El Salt study are "very stable," Sistiaga says. "We are going to try a two-million-year-old sample from another site next."

Effort to Figure Out What Neanderthals Ate

"We have passed through different phases in our interpretation of Neanderthals," Ainara Sistiaga, a graduate student at the University of La Laguna who led the analysis as a visiting student at MIT. "We believe Neanderthals probably ate what was available in different situations, seasons, and climates."

According to MIT: While scientists have attempted to reconstruct the Neanderthal diet, much of the evidence has been inconclusive. For example, researchers have analyzed bone fragments for carbon and nitrogen isotopes — signs that Neanderthals may have consumed certain prey, such as pigs versus cows. But such isotopic data only differentiate between protein sources — underestimating plant intake, and thereby depicting the Neanderthal as exclusively carnivorous. [Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, June 25, 2014 -]

“Other researchers recently identified plant microfossils trapped in Neanderthal teeth — a finding that suggests the species may have led a more complex lifestyle, harvesting and cooking a variety of plants in addition to hunting prey. But Sistiaga says it is also possible that Neanderthals didn't eat plants directly, but consumed them through the stomach contents of their prey, leaving traces of plants in their teeth. Equally likely, she says, is another scenario: "Sometimes in prehistoric societies, they used their teeth as tools, biting plants, among other things. We can't assume they were actually eating the plants based on finding microfossils in their teeth." -

“For a more direct approach, Sistiaga looked for fecal remains in El Salt, an excavation site in Alicante, Spain, where remnants of multiple Neanderthal occupations have been unearthed. Sistiaga and her colleagues dug out small samples of soil from different layers, and then worked with Summons to analyze the samples at MIT. In the lab, Sistiaga ground the soil into a powder, then used multiple solvents to extract any organic matter from the sediment. Next, she looked for certain biomarkers in the organic residue that would signal whether the fecal remains were of human origin. Specifically, Sistiaga looked for signs of coprostanol, a lipid formed when the gut metabolizes cholesterol. As humans are able to break down more cholesterol than any other mammal, Sistiaga looked for a certain peak level of coprostanol that would indicate the sample came from a human. -

“She and Summons then used the same geochemical techniques to determine the proportions of coprostanol — an animal-derived compound — to 5B-stigmastanol, a substance derived from the breakdown of phytosterol derived from plants. Each sample contained mostly coprostanol — evidence of a largely meat-based diet. However, two samples also held biomarkers of plants, which Sistiaga says may indicate a rather significant plant intake. As she explains it, gram for gram, there is more cholesterol in meat than there is phytosterol in plants — so it would take a significant plant intake to produce even a small amount of metabolized phytosterol.” -

Neanderthal Diet: 80 Percent Meat

Fossil analysis suggests Neanderthals ate a diet that was 80 percent meat. Brooks Hays of UPI wrote: “New isotopic analysis suggests prehistoric humans ate mostly meat. As detailed in a new study published in the journal Quaternary International, the Neanderthal diet consisted of 80 percent meat, 20 percent vegetables. [Source: Brooks Hays, UPI, March 19, 2016 \~/]

“Researchers in Germany measured isotope concentrations of collagen in Neanderthal fossils and compared them to the isotopic signatures of animal bones found nearby. In doing so, scientists were able to compare and contrast the diets of early humans and their mammalian neighbors, including mammoths, horses, reindeer, bison, hyenas, bears, lions and others.\~/

Lead researcher Herve Bocherens, a professor at the University of Tubingen’s Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment, said: “Previously, it was assumed that the Neanderthals utilized the same food sources as their animal neighbors. However, our results show that all predators occupy a very specific niche, preferring smaller prey as a rule, such as reindeer, wild horses or steppe bison, while the Neanderthals primarily specialized on the large plant-eaters such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses.” \~/

All of the Neanderthal and animal bones, dated between 45,000 and 40,000 years old, were collected from two excavation sites in Belgium. Researchers have long debated the precise diet of early humans, but the latest study is the first to nail down precise percentages. Bocherens and his colleagues are hopeful their research will shed light on the Neanderthals’ extinction some 40,000 years ago. “We are accumulating more and more evidence that diet was not a decisive factor in why the Neanderthals had to make room for modern humans,” he said. \~/

Neanderthals Fond of Pigeons and First Known Bird Eaters

Neanderthals are the first known hominin bird eaters. They appear to have caught, butchered and cooked wild pigeons long before modern humans regularly are bird meat a study, published in the journal Scientific Reports in August 2014, said, on Thursday. Brian Reyes wrote in “Close examination of 1,724 bones from rock doves, found in a cave in Gibraltar and dated to between 67,000 and 28,000 years ago, revealed cuts, human tooth marks and burns, said the study. This suggested the doves may have been butchered and then roasted, wrote the researchers—the first evidence of hominins eating birds. [Source: Brian Reyes,, August 7, 2014 ^*^]

“And the evidence suggested Neanderthals ate much like a latter-day Homo sapiens would tuck into a roast chicken, pulling the bones apart to get at the soft flesh. “They liked what we like and went for the breasts, the drumsticks and the wings,” study author Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, told journalists of the bone analysis. “They had the knowledge and technology to do this.”

“The scarred remains were from rock doves—a species that typically nests on cliff ledges and the entrance to large caves—and the ancestors of today’s widespread feral pigeon. The discarded remains were from a time that the cave was occupied by Neanderthals and subsequently by humans. It was long thought that modern humans were the first hominins to eat birds on a regular basis. Yet at Gorham’s Cave, “Neanderthals exploited Rock Doves for food for a period of over 40,000 years, the earliest evidence dating to at least 67,000 years ago,” said the paper. ^*^

“And these were not sporadic meals, as borne out by “repeated evidence of the practice in different, widely spaced” parts of the cave. “Our results point to hitherto unappreciated capacities of the Neanderthals to exploit birds as food resources on a regular basis,” the team wrote. “More so, they were practising it long before the arrival of modern humans and had therefore invented it independently.” Finlayson said the bone analysis added to a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than was once widely believed. “This makes them even more human,” he said. ^*^

“Only a small proportion of bones found in regions of the cave inhabited by Neanderthals had cut marks on them, but the authors pointed out that rock doves were small and easy to eat without utensils. “After skinning or feather removal, direct use of hands and teeth would be the best way to remove the meat and fat/cartilage from the bones,” they wrote. “The proof of this is the human toothmarks and associated damage observed on some dove bones.” It was not known how the birds were captured, though the team speculated they would have been relatively easy to snatch from their nests “by a moderately skillful and silent climber” The researchers conceded the scorch marks were not conclusive proof of cooking, as they could be from waste disposal or accidental burning.” ^*^

Meat Diet Gave Neanderthals Barrel Bodies?

Neanderthals ate plants but subsisted on animals, leading to larger livers and kidneys and wider thoraxes, Israeli scientists assert. Ruth Schuster wrote on,. Neanderthals and humans” had their anatomical differences, among them wider pelvises and rib-cages. Now archaeologists from Tel Aviv University suggest that the reason for these anatomical discrepancies is that Neanderthals ate mostly meat, while Homo sapiens has had a more variegated diet. [Source: Ruth Schuster,, May 21, 2016 ]

“It isn’t new that the Neaderthal ribcage and pelvis are wider than man’s. But until now scientists had assumed that had to do with Neanderthals having greater energetic demands than Homo sapiens. Whether or not that was a factor, the Tel Aviv archaeologists think the reason may have been more diet-oriented. Studies of coprolites (fossil feces) have shown that Neanderthals also ate plant matter. But a range of studies have shown the Neanderthal diet to be heavily biased towards protein – meat and fat. Chemical studies of their bones has indicated that a bigger proportion of their diet came from meat than cave bears found at the same sites; analysis of the isotopes in Neanderthal collagen shows their diet consisted mainly of herbivores, and megafauna, such as sloths, mammoths and prehistoric rhinoceroses, as well as plants.

“In the frigid winters of the Ice Age, large animals may have flourished, but their fat content would have been reduced. A theoretical model created by the Israeli scientists predicts that during glacial winters, when carbohydrates weren’t available and fat was scarce, the Neanderthals needed to get more caloric intake meat, and evolved to better convert the protein into life-giving energy.

“To contend with all that protein, their livers, which are responsible for protein metabolism, had to become larger. So their lower thoraxes did too. The more protein is metabolized, the more toxins such as urea need removal from the body. As their protein metabolism increased, the Neanderthals needed more renal capacity – an enlarged bladder and kidneys – to get rid of the toxins, could, evolutionarily, be the reason why the Neanderthal pelvis is wider than ours. “Given that high protein consumption is associated with larger liver and kidneys in animal models, it appears likely that the enlarged inferior section of the Neanderthals’ thorax and possibly, in part, also his wide pelvis, represented an adaptation to provide encasement for those enlarged organs,” write the scientists. “Early indigenous Arctic populations who primarily ate meat also displayed enlarged livers and the tendency to drink a lot of water, a sign of increased renal activity,” Ben-Dor points out.”

Neanderthal Hunting

To keep their stocky bodies going in a cold climate, Duke University paleoanthropologist Steven Churchill estimates that a typical Neanderthal male needed to burn 5,000 calories a day, almost what cyclists competing in the Tour de France burn each day. To achieve this end some scientists argue Neanderthal needed to hunt large and medium-size game such as horses, deer, bison and wild cattle.

Studies of nitrogen levels found in a 33,000-year-old Neanderthal jawbone and skull, indicate that Neanderthals mostly ate animals, not plants. An inference that can be drawn from this is that Neanderthals were active hunters not scavengers and thus had an organized society that could hunt large animals. If they were scavengers they would more like have had to eat other kinds of food to tide them over when they couldn't find meat.

Scientists believe that Neanderthals initially competed with wolves, hyenas, lions and other predators for easy kills such as newly born calves and later developed strategies for hunting larger prey in groups.

Neanderthal tools were found with mammoth bones at the site of an ancient water hole in southern England. The mammoth bones showed the presence of carcass beetles and carnivore bites which suggests that maybe the Neanderthals scavenged rather than hunted the mammoths.

Neanderthal Hunting Methods

The presence of large numbers of reindeer bones at the Les Pradelles site in southwest France has led some scientists to believe that Neanderthals engaged in organized hunting and butchering. Describing the significance of another large Neanderthal butchering area, French archaeologist Alain Tuffreau told National Geographic, "Many of the bones belonged to young adult aurochs. They were very strong and dangerous. Animals of that age don't normally die together in such large numbers. For humans to kill such big animals before bows and arrows were invented, they needed a group and a strategy."

Neanderthals had wide shoulders and hips and generally had a body that was more suited for short powerful burst rather than endurance running, which has led some scientists to theorize they were primarily ambush hunters.

Based on evidence of wounds and injuries and the stone points they used, scientists believe Neanderthals attacked their prey directly by thrusting knives and spears instead of throwing things at that at them. "They were unable to conceive of projectiles," French archaeologist Jean-Michel Geneste told National Geographic. "We don't know why." Some scientists theorize they relied more on thrusting weapons because they mostly hunted in dense forests, where setting up ambushes and fighting at close quarters makes more sense than trying to throw something through trees and bushes.

"Surrounding and confusing prey is a classic predatory tactic," Steve Kuhn of the University of Arizona told National Geographic. "A few cooperating hunters could have exploited natural landscape features like bogs and deep stream banks that put large animals at a disadvantage. They probably killed at close range with wooden spears that perhaps had a sharp stone point." Wooden spears had been used in Europe since 400,000 years ago.

Hunting large animals was dangerous business and this seems have been borne out by the large numbers of healed fractures found on Neanderthals upper limbs and skulls. Goring were probably relatively common occurrences.

Neanderthals Adapted Hunting Methods

Archeologists have suggested that Neanderthals may have been more versatile and adaptable hunters than previously thought. Dan Vergano wrote in USA Today: “Neanderthals have long been seen as homebodies who stuck to hunting near their caves, but a Journal of Archaeological Science review of their tools and butchery sites in southwestern France suggests they got around when it came to hunting reindeer and bison starting about 75,000 years ago. From roughly 350,000 to 80,000 years ago, the stone blade technology associated with Neanderthal sites belong to dual-faced butchering tools intended for single use, surrounded by remains suggesting hunters moved around chasing non-migratory species such as red deer and roe deer. [Source: Dan Vergano, USA Today, June 14, 2011 |==|]

“About 75,000 years ago however, the Neanderthal toolkit expanded, with reused blade flakes predominating at specific kill sites used to target migratory species such as reindeer and bison, the study authors find: “The repeated use of a specific site at a precise time of the year for the exploitation of a particular taxon is evidence of hunting activities that were scheduled according to a year-round pattern for the exploitation of gregarious and migratory prey. The specific hunting locations would have acted as satellites of the principal living sites, to which high utility resources (meat, grease, marrow and skin) were transported. Meat procurement was embedded in a mobility strategy that directly echoed the structure of the technological system. It is also indicative of the emergence of specialized and seasonally scheduled subsistence strategies.” |==|

“Why the change? Perhaps climate shifts altered the woodland home of the deer to plains, friendlier homes for bison and reindeer. “During the cold periods of the Upper Pleistocene, a greater dependence on meat consumption and an increased ungulate biomass associated with a proliferation of large migrating herbivore herds, particularly reindeer and bison, likely favored the emergence of new hunting strategies.” “ |==|

Neanderthals Didn’t Drive Mammoths Off a Cliff

It had previously been suggested that Neanderthals drove mammoths off a cliff on what is now the British island of Jersey. Research published in 2014 said that new evidence makes the case that it would have been impossible to stampede mammoths to their deaths at site in Jersey.Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: ““Heaps of mammoth and woolly rhino bones found piled up at the foot of a cliff were thought to be the grim results of Neanderthals driving the beasts over the edge. The piles of bones are a major feature at La Cotte de St Brelade on Jersey, one of the most spectacular Neanderthal sites in Europe. But the claim that they mark the remains of mass slaughter has been all but ruled out by a fresh investigation. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, February 28, 2014 \^^/]

“Researchers have found that the plateau that ends at the cliff edge was so rocky and uneven that mammoths and other weighty beasts would never have ventured up there. Even if the creatures had clambered so high, the Neanderthals would have had to chase them down a steep dip and back up the other side long before the animals reached the cliff edge and plunged to their doom. "I can't imagine a way in which Neanderthals would have been able to force mammoths down this slope and then up again before they even got to the edge of the headland," said Beccy Scott, an archaeologist at the British Museum. "And they're unlikely to have got up there in the first place." \^^/

“Hundreds of thousands of stone tools and bone fragments have been uncovered at the Jersey site where Neanderthals lived on and off for around 200,000 years. The site was apparently abandoned from time to time when the climate cooled, forcing the Neanderthals back to warmer territory. Scott and her colleagues drew on a survey of the seabed that stretches away from the cliff to reconstruct the landscape when the Neanderthals lived there. The land, now submerged under higher sea levels, was cut with granite ravines, gullies and dead-end valleys – a terrain perfect for stalking and ambushing prey. "The site would have been an ideal vantage point for Neanderthal hunters. They could have looked out over the open plain and watched mammoths, woolly rhinos and horses moving around. They could see what was going on, and move out and ambush their prey," said Scott. Details of the study are published in the journal Antiquity. |=|

“The researchers have an alternative explanation for the bone heaps. Neanderthals living there may have brought the bones there after hunts, or from scavenged carcasses, and used them for food, heating and even building shelters. Older sediments at the site are rich with burnt bone and charcoal, suggesting the bones were used as fuel. The heaps of bones were preserved when Neanderthals last abandoned the site, and a fine dust of silt blew over and preserved the remains. |=|

Did Diet Play a Role in Neanderthal’s Extinction?

Extinct cave bear

Neanderthals died out about 25,0000 years ago. Dan Vergano wrote in National Geographic: Conventional wisdom holds that boiling to soften food or render fat from bones may have been one of the advantages that allowed Homo sapiens to thrive, while Neanderthals died out.” [Source: Dan Vergano, National Geographic, April 30, 2014]

“Some researchers have suggested that the Neanderthals' meat-centric diet may have left them open to extinction when they were forced to compete for resources after other omnivorous early modern humans entered their territory, bringing more complex tools with them. [Source: Dan Vergano, National Geographic, June 25, 2014 |]

That story looks a little too simple now, even if Neanderthals did have a "meat-dominated" diet, according to the study. MIT geoarchaeologist Ainara Sistiaga, suggests that Neanderthal digestion worked with the help of bacteria similar to the ones at work in our own guts.The coprolites also revealed that the Neanderthals apparently had parasites, such as hookworms and pinworms, similar to the ones afflicting modern and other ancient people. We were told that people with [as] many parasites as we saw [in the samples] would be very sick’” |

Ruth Schuster wrote on, “Why the Neanderthals eventually went extinct is not known. They ate whatever herbivores they could catch, not only giant animals. But among the many theories is that their demise is related to the extinction of the megafauna, which disappeared just before they did, around 50,000 years ago. We don’t know precisely why the megafauna went extinct either but one postulation is that the climate changed in ways they found uncomfortable, and they were hunted to death. If so, that may have doomed the Neanderthals in their turn.” [Source: Ruth Schuster,, May 21, 2016]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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