Omnivorous Neanderthals: Study Says Their Teeth Show Evidence of Eating Plants

By Andrew Moseman | December 28, 2010 12:35 pm

Did Neanderthals enjoy some diversity in their diet? A study out in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims to offer more evidence that these hominids ate a wide-ranging diet including cooked grains and grasses rather than the cartoon caveman’s diet of meat, meat, and more meat.

Amanda Henry has made the case before; in April 2008 she said that micro-fossils of plant material could be found in the plaque of recovered Neanderthal teeth. Now, she says, her team has found more traces of grains and plants stuck in the teeth of Neanderthal fossils unearthed in Belgium and Iraq.

After analyzing a selection of these particles from European and Middle Eastern Neandertal dental remains, the team found “direct evidence for Neanderthal consumption of a variety of plant foods.” … Some of the Paleolithic snacks seem to have included legumes, date palms and grass seeds. The grasses were from the Triticeae group, which includes wild varieties of barley, rye and wheat relatives. [Scientific American]

Furthermore, the grains and starches present show the signature of having been cooked—probably by boiling in water—according to study author Dolores Piperno. To test this out the researchers themselves cooked similar grains, and the effects matched what they saw in the Neanderthal samples.

“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. [The Guardian]

Previously, some chemical analyses of Neanderthal bones had backed up the idea that they were almost totally carnivorous, if not completely so. But, Alison Brooks (who was not involved in the study) tells the BBC, those studies had simply checked the protein levels.

“We’ve tended to assume that if you have a very high value for protein in the diet that must come from meat. But… it’s possible that some of the protein in their diet was coming from plants,” she said. [BBC News]

This new study would support the growing notion that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than we humans have long believed. But if Neanderthals truly were accomplished cooks and occasional plant eaters, that only heightens the mystery of why they disappeared while our ancestors survived.

Related Content:
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80beats: Evidence of Smart, Jewelry-Making Neanderthals Is Challenged
80beats: Rough Draft of the Neanderthal Genome is Complete
DISCOVER: Respect Your Elders, Human!

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Top Posts
  • Georg

    did they do the cooking of the starch without

  • Mr Z

    Georg, they also managed to eat without forks… imagine that! You can boil water in a hollowed out rock, or even a hollowed out log. It is not necessary to boil, as in soup, to cook a mash of grain and water. It can be made into a paste which is then cooked on rocks – kind of like bread.

    More and more I tire of the assumption that Neanderthals were mindless animal like carnivorous buffoons. Their “disappearance” should be no more a mystery than the disappearance of the Algonquin indians. Further, there is nothing to suggest that half of what we know about modern humans of Europe did not come from or was not adopted from Neanderthals. The record(s) are only now beginning to show that they ate more than meat and that modern Europeans carry part of the Neanderthal genes. Interbreeding is almost guaranteed and to assume it didn’t happens seems ridiculous.

    The questions science should be asking is why there is not yet evidence that they were as accomplished at survival as our ancestors? It’s starting to look a lot like we are the descendants of the Neanderthals, and that they really did not disappear. Evolution did not select them, but their mix breed offspring may well be what we see wandering Europe today. I think the mystery is not why they disappeared, but why it appears that they did. The assumption of their demise seems premature.

  • Douglas Watts

    This new study would support the growing notion that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than we humans have long believed. But if Neanderthals truly were accomplished cooks and occasional plant eaters, that only heightens the mystery of why they disappeared while our ancestors survived.

    God, this is terrible science writing … circa National Geographic from 1961.

  • Douglas Watts

    Who ever said that ‘cave men’ ate ‘meat, meat, and meat …’ except the author and illiterate comic books?

  • Crow
  • Wesley

    @ Mr Z

    I agree with everything except your proposal that they have not disappeared. That is only partially true. Some of their DNA survives in some humans, but its not much. 4 to 6 % is the most I have heard of. To say that their species has not died out but just mixed with ours based on that.. its a stretch.

    Their was some interbreeding which isnt suprising, but they were still basically wiped out by our line of humans. The only question is: exactly what gave us the advantage? What exactly was it? Better organization, language, weapons? Did we bring them plagues as we did the north american natives? Was it that we could survive on less calories? Were we just plain more aggressive? A cultural difference, rather than a genetic advantage?

  • John

    The way some of you folks are carrying on makes me wonder if Neanderthal victim advocacy groups are going to start popping up on college campuses.

  • Helian

    Victims?! These teeth prove beyond a doubt that they slept with our women and then stole our food while we were out hunting. They deserved extinction!

  • Charles

    Neanderthals died out because they were tastier than us.


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