New evidence suggests Neandertals ate cooked foods, and plants at that.
Amanda Henry and colleagues (in press) extracted phytoliths – small mineralized parts from plants – and starch grains from dental calculus found on 2 Belgian (Spy) and 1 Iraqi (Shanidar) Neandertal fossils. I’ve never seen a study look at this kind of evidence before, I have to say it’s pretty neat. Calculus, not just a badass type of mathematics, is mineralized plaque that can build up on teeth. As the Neandertals chewed their foods, the small food particles got trapped in their plaque and this gross matrix hardened onto their teeth. So, if you want to obliterate traces of your diet, and otherwise conform to Western norms of dental hygiene, one thing you can do is be sure always to brush. And floss.
Microscopic barley grains. Top row are examples of grains from Shanidar calculus, and beneath each are examples of modern barley to which they are probably related. Fig. 1 from Henry et al. (in press)
Types of plants eaten by the Shanidar individual include relatives of modern wheat, barley (see figure), and rye, and what looked like beans and date palm, too. In addition, some of the starch grains bear strong resemblance to plant remains after cooking, probably either by boiling or baking. The Belgian samples provided less broad evidence, indicating presence mainly of some type of underground storage organ (like a tuber) and grass seeds. Many phytoliths and grains were unable to be identified, leaving open the chance that future research on these will uncover utilization of a greater breadth of plants.
This is pretty neat, since studies of the isotopes in Neandertal teeth indicated a strong meat component to the diet. In fact, Neandertals have often been referred to as ‘top carnivores.’ This new study supports other evidence of a large plant component as well. After all, isotope studies are only one form of evidence of diet. Neandertals weren’t just big game hunters, they were hunter-gatherers. What’s more, they improved the edibility and nutritive value of their plant (and probably also animal) foods by cooking them. So, this study presents another way in which Neandertals were probably no different from contemporaneous humans.
One has to wonder what these paleolithic meals would have been like. Especially what with claims of cannibalism in some Neandertal sites – perhaps “liver with some fava beans and a nice chiaaanti…fhfhfhfhfhfhfh,” to quote Hannibal Lecter. And who would win Iron Chef – the classic Neandertals, or their more ‘modern’ looking contemporaries?
Henry, A., Brooks, A., & Piperno, D. (2010). Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016868108
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