New research on the diet of Neanderthals shows that members of this extinct human species were not just the “primitive hunters” of popular imagination.
They were, on the contrary, able to exploit whatever sources of food were available in their environment.
“Neanderthals have traditionally been considered almost exclusively big game hunters,” said Dr Luca Fiorenza, a lecturer in palaeoanthropology at the University of New England. “Our research, using a new technique for generating and analysing three-dimensional models of teeth, suggests that Neanderthals were as flexible in their diet as their Homo sapiens contemporaries.”
Dr Fiorenza is the first author of a recently-published paper presenting the results of this research (Fiorenza L, Benazzi S, Tausch J, Kullmer O, Bromage TG et al.: “Molar macrowear reveals Neanderthal eco-geographic dietary variation”, PLoS ONE 6(3), 2011). “It has been suggested that the Neanderthals’ restricted diet – leading to increases in maternal and infant mortality and decreases in overall life expectancy – could have contributed to their extinction,” he said. “But now we have to look for other explanations.”
The research team developed the three-dimensional optical technique, known as “occlusal fingerprint analysis” (OFA), at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. It has enabled them to analyse specific wear patterns on Neanderthal teeth – patterns indicative of the food they were eating. They found that the Neanderthals’ dental wear patterns were similar to those of their Homo sapiens contemporaries living in a comparable environment.
When that environment was a fruitful Mediterranean one, dental wear patterns in both of the Homo species indicate a varied diet of animal and plant food – similar to the traditional diets (with their tell-tale dental wear patterns) of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. When the environment was that of a higher latitude, diets were more restricted to high-protein meat resources – similar to the diets of the Inuit populations of Arctic regions.
“Neanderthals can now be viewed as being much more sophisticated in their choice of prehistoric cuisine than was thought before,” Dr Fiorenza said.