Posts Tagged ‘neanderthals’

Original article phys.org

by  Asociacion RUVID

New research shows that Siberian Neanderthals ate both plants and animals
Domingo Carlos Salazar and associate. Credit: Asociacion RUVID

Neanderthals, extinct cousins of modern humans, occupied Western Eurasia before disappearing and although it was once thought that they traveled as far east as Uzbekistan, in recent years an international research team with the participation of the University of Valencia discovered that they reached two thousand kilometers further East, to the Altai Mountains of Siberia. An international research team led by Domingo Carlos Salazar, CIDEGENT researcher of excellence at the University of Valencia, published today in the Journal of Human Evolution the first attempt to document the diet of a Neanderthal through a unique combination of stable isotope analysis and identification of plant micro-remnants in an individual.

The analysis of Neanderthal bones and dental stones from Siberia sheds light on their dietary ecology, at the eastern limit of their expansion. It is a very dynamic region where Neanderthals also interacted with their enigmatic Asian cousins, the Denisovans. The work refers both to western Siberia, where there are studies that explain that modern humans responded with high mobility, and to the eastern part, where there is a lack of work that analyzes the behavior and subsistence of Neanderthals, who inhabited this Siberian forest steppe, which is drier and colder than the western one. Studying the diets of eastern Neanderthals allows us to understand their behaviors, mobility and potential adaptability.

A team of researchers from Spain, Germany, Canada, The Netherlands and Russia, led by physician and historian Domingo Carlos Salazar García from the University of Valencia, took bone samples and dental calculus from Neanderthal remains dated to 60 and 50 ka BP from the site of Chagyrskaya in the Altai Mountains in Southern Siberia, located just 100 km from the Denisova Cave. Analyzes of the stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes from one mandible (Chagyrskaya 6) revealed that this individual had a relatively high trophic level compared to the local food web, indicating that it consumed a large amount of animal protein from hunting large and medium-sized game. Using optical microscopy, the researchers identified a diverse assemblage of microscopic particles from plants preserved in the dental calculus from the same individuals as well as from others from the site. These plant microremains indicate that the inhabitants of Chagyrskaya also consumed a number of different plants.

These results can help us answer a long-standing enigma about the Altai Neanderthals: the region was tempting enough that Neanderthals colonized the area at least twice, but genetic data indicates they were barely hanging on, living only in small groups that were constantly at risk of extinction. The dietary data now indicates that this unusual habitation pattern was probably not due to a lack of adapting their diet to the local environment. Instead, other factors such as the climate or interaction with other hominins should be investigated in future studies.n

“Neanderthals were capable of having a diverse menu even in adverse climatic environments,” says Domingo C. Salazar García, “it was really surprising that these eastern Neanderthals had broadly similar subsistence patterns to those from Western Eurasia, showing the high adaptability of our cousins, and therefore suggesting that their dietary ecology was probably not a disadvantage when competing with anatomically modern humans.”

“These microremains provide some indication that even as Neanderthals expanded onto the vast and cold forest-steppe of Central Asia they retained patterns of plant use that could have been developed in Western Eurasia,” says Robert Power, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Dietary ecology

“A better grasp of Neanderthal dietary ecology is not only the key to better understand why they disappeared, but also to how they interacted with other populations who they coexisted with, like the Denisovans,” says Bence Viola, assistant professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.

“To really understand the diets of our ancestors and cousins, we need more studies like this one that make use of multiple different methods on the same individuals. We can finally understand both the plant and animal foods that they ate,” offers Amanda G. Henry, assistant professor at the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University.

“The steppe lowlands of the Altai Mountains were suitable for the habitation of the Neanderthals 60,000 years ago. Despite the sparse vegetation and its seasonal nature, the absence of tundra elements and relatively mild climate allowed eastern Neanderthals to keep the same food strategies as their western relatives,” says Natalia Rudaya, head of PaleoData Lab of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography Siberian Branch Russian Academy of Science.


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On this day ten years ago…
via Neanderthals Enjoyed Surf and Turf Meals

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Original Article:

By Ruth Schuster

They ate plants too but Neanderthals subsisted on animals, leading to liver and kidney enlargement and wider thoraxes, say Tel Aviv University archaeologists.

Neanderthals and humans were kissing cousins, literally, but they 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.

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, who lived among European and Middle Eastern humans until around 30,000-40,000 years ago, 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.

Why the Neanderthals eventually went extinct is not known. They also 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.

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Fossil analysis suggests Neanderthals ate a diet of 80 percent meat. Photo by OrdinaryJoe/Shutterstock

Fossil analysis suggests Neanderthals ate a diet of 80 percent meat. Photo by OrdinaryJoe/Shutterstock


Original Article:


By Brooks Hays, March 19, 2016


Researchers have long debated the precise diet of early humans, but the latest study is the first to nail down precise percentages.


Neanderthals were apparently too busy hunting and scavenging to pay much attention to Michael Pollan’s dietary advice: eat mostly plants.

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.

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.

“Previously, it was assumed that the Neanderthals utilized the same food sources as their animal neighbors,” lead researcher Herve Bocherens, a professor at the University of Tubingen’s Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment, said in a news release.

“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,” Bocherens explained.

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.


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Evidence suggests Neanderthals boiled food

Neanderthal cooking likely wouldn’t have won any prizes on Top Chef, but a paleontologist suggests that our ancient cousins knew how to cook a mean stew, without even a stone pot to their name.

This female Neanderthal, found in a cave in Gibraltar, may have enjoyed foods heated
in birch bark trays [Credit: Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic]
“I think it’s pretty likely the Neanderthals boiled,” said University of Michigan paleontologist John Speth at a recent meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Austin, Texas. “They were around for a long time, and they were very clever with fire.”

Neanderthals were a species of early humans who lived in Europe and the Near East until about 30,000 years ago. 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.

But based on evidence from ancient bones, spears, and porridge, Speth believes our Stone Age cousins likely boiled their food. He suggests that Neanderthals boiled using only a skin bag or a birch bark tray by relying on a trick of chemistry: 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. His presentation included video of water boiling in a paper cup (the water keeps the paper from reaching its ignition temperature) and mention of scenes in Jean Auel’s 1980 novel, Clan of the Cave Bear (later a movie), in which Neanderthals boiled stews in hide pouches.

“This wasn’t an invention of some brainy modern people,” Speth says.

Quest for Fire

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.

Birch Bubbling

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.

If 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.

The idea that Neanderthals could probably boil their food first came to Speth as he watched an episode of the TV show Survivorman. Stuck in East Africa with only dirty water to drink, host Les Stroud sterilized the muddy liquid by boiling it in a plastic bag.

“Who says you can’t learn anything from TV?” says Speth. “I figured if we could boil water in a plastic bag, then Neanderthals could do it in a birch tray.”

Author: Dan Vergano | Source: National Geographic [April 30, 2014]

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Topic: Salmon

Why did anatomically modern humans replace Neandertals in Europe around 40,000 years ago?

One hypothesis suggests that Neandertals were rigid in their dietary choice, targeting large herbivorous mammals, such as horse, bison and mammoths, while modern humans also exploited a wider diversity of dietary resources, including fish. This dietary flexibility of modern humans would have been a big advantage when competing with Neandertals and led to their final success. 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. The scientists challenge the hypothesis of evolutionary advantage of modern humans on basis of dietary choice. Bone analyses ruled out cave bears and cave lions to have consumed the fish whose remains were found at the Caucasian cave.

The hypothesis on dietary differences between modern humans and Neandertals is based on the study of animal bones found in caves occupied by these two types of hominids, which can provide clues about their diet, but it is always difficult to exclude large predators living at the same time as being responsible for at least part of this accumulation. One such case occurs in a cave located on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, called Kudaro 3.

There, 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.

More information: Bocherens, H., Baryshnikov, G. and van Neer, W. Were bears or lions involved in salmon accumulation in the Middle Palaeolithic of the Caucasus? An isotopic investigation in Kudaro 3, Quaternary International. doi 0.1016/j.quaint.2013.06.026

Original article:
Sep 17, 2013

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Topic: Flint tools

The flint workshops, remains of which were found by archaeologists, had been used by Neanderthals. The researchers are waiting for more detailed information on the site dating. The workshop is certainly more than 45 thousand years old.

“Tools were made by a specific canon of Neanderthals living in Central Europe. These items have a cutting edge on both sides, they are bifacial” – said Dr. Wiśniewski.

Tools, including bifaces and asymmetric blades, are made of siliceous rocks, commonly called flint. According to head researcher, Neanderthals made their tools with holders made of antlers, wood or other materials. This is evidenced by the results of the microscopic analysis of similar items discovered in Germany. Among the flint, archaeologists also found fragments of coarse grained crystalline rock used as pestles – support tools in the manufacture of other tools. This is one of few places in Poland, where archaeologists discovered tools of this kind.

“We believe that a thorough analysis of the remains of biface and knife workshop will allow us to better understand the procedures for making these complex tools. We are also going to compare our finds with the ones from Moravia, because we would like to answer the question asked for a long time: how were the Neanderthals living the present territory of Silesia connected with the group from Moravia? Was it the same population or a completely separate community?” – added the scientist.

According to archaeologists, the place the discovery is not accidental. Further south is the Moravian Gate, known migration route of nations from southern European over the millennia. This is one of the Central Europe’s largest corridors intersecting Sudetes and Carpathian Mountains.

“In this territory, we are finding traces of various activities: from hunting and slaughtering migrating wild game, to places of prolonged stay of Neanderthal groups of hunters and gatherers” – said the archaeologist. However, this is the first site so rich in finds from the Paleolithic period found in this area.

Archaeological work on the site began in August 2012 and will continue this summer. One of the first tasks will be to take samples needed for more accurate dating of the site. The analyses will be carried out by thermoluminescence (TL). It is used to determine the age of deposition of particular layers. Also involved in the work in the area of the site is Dr. Janusz Badura, responsible for natural research.

“We also need to learn more about the natural and climatic conditions accompanying the Neanderthals. This is the purpose of the search for sediments containing pollen from the period of interest. Our dream is to discovery skeletal remains of the game of the period” – concluded the researcher.


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Wild rabbits gather in Portugal. Photograph by Duncan Usher, Alamy

Topic: Ancient Prey

The inability to shift prey may have been deadly, study says.

Neanderthals did not learn how to hunt small animals such as rabbits (pictured, a group of animals Portugal).

Rabbits are small, fast, and devilishly hard to catch. And that could have had dire consequences for Neanderthals.

A new study suggests that an inability to shift from hunting large mammals to wild rabbits and other small game may have contributed to the downfall of European Neanderthals during the Middle Paleolithic period, about 30,000 years ago.

“There have been some studies that examined the importance of rabbit meat to hominins”—or early human ancestors—”but we give it a new twist,” said study lead author John Fa, a biologist at the United Kingdom’s Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Imperial College London.

“We show in our study that [modern humans] used rabbits extensively, but Neanderthals didn’t.”

Fa and his team analyzed animal bone remains spanning a period of 50,000 years from Neanderthal and modern-human-occupied sites across Iberia, the part of Europe that includes Spain and Portugal, and southern France.

They found that rabbit remains only started to became common at sites around 30,000 years ago, which is around the time that Neanderthals started to disappear and—perhaps not coincidentally—when modern humans first arrived in Europe.

The authors speculate that over the course of thousands of years, as climate change or human hunting pressure whittled down populations of Iberian large animals such as woolly mammoths, rabbits would have become an increasingly important food resource.

But Neanderthals may have been unable or unwilling to “prey shift” to smaller game, the authors argue in a new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

“Neanderthals were large mammals hunters, par excellence,” Fa said, but they “could have found it difficult to hunt the smaller, but superabundant, rabbit.”

John Shea, a paleoanthropologist at Stonybrook University in New York City who did was not involved in the research, agreed.

Most people underestimate how hard it is to hunt rabbits, Shea said. “If I say, ‘Let’s go hunt a mammoth,’ you’ll probably think I’m nuts and that we’re going to die. But if I say, ‘Let’s go hunt rabbits,’ then it’s a piece of cake.”

Weapons Not Up to the Task?

In reality, the cost and benefits for Neanderthals would have been almost reversed, Shea said.

“If you have the technology to kill a mammoth when you run into it”—as Neanderthals did—”then the risk is low and the return is high. Whereas with a rabbit, the cost in killing it is negligible, but the return is tiny.”

The piercing spears and clubs known to have been used by European Neanderthals weren’t very well suited for catching rabbits. In contrast, early modern humans used complex projectile weapons such as spear throwers and possibly bows and arrows—both of which are better for hunting small, fast-moving prey.

There are other ways to catch rabbits, however. There is evidence that Neanderthals were capable of making string, so it’s very possible that they were able to weave nets and snares to use as traps, Shea said.

But even if Neanderthals could make such traps, they still might not have done so because of the high startup costs involved.

“There’s more time and energy involved in trapping than most people think,” Shea said. “You have to set a lot of them and monitor them, because once an animal is trapped, it becomes vulnerable to predation by rival carnivores.”

The process could have been too demanding for Neanderthals, who likely had higher energy requirements than modern humans.

Stockier and more muscular than humans, and lacking humans’ tailored clothes, scientists estimate that Neanderthals could have needed twice as many calories to survive and stay warm.

Bunny Hunting a Family Affair

Fa and his team speculate that most of the rabbit hunting among early modern humans may have been done by women and children, who could have stayed behind in settlements while the men went on hunting trips for larger prey.

The women and children “may have specialized in hunting rabbits, by surrounding warrens with nets or smoking the rabbits out of the warren,” Fa said.

Ancient rabbit hunters may also have had help from a four-legged ally picked up during their travels from Africa: dogs. (Also see “Opinion: We Didn’t Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us.”)

The oldest fossil evidence for dogs is only about 12,000 years old, but there is genetic evidence suggesting dogs may have split from wolves as far back as 30,000 years ago-around the time that humans were arriving in Europe.

“What we are saying is that this may have occurred,” Fa said. “The domestication of the dog for hunting purposes may have been a tremendous advantage for human hunters.”

Why Not Adjust?

Bruce Hardy, an anthropologist at Ohio’s Kenyon College, said he’s unconvinced.

“I think the data is at a very gross level and they’re drawing implications from it that are quite frankly speculative,” said Hardy, who also did not participate in the research.

Hardy also finds it difficult to imagine that Neanderthals couldn’t change their hunting strategies to target rabbits when they had thousands of years to do so, or turn to other food sources, such as plants.

“If they were this inflexible, why did they make it for 250,000 years?” Hardy said.

It’s like saying “‘Oh, the big animal are gone. I guess I’m going to starve now.’ That doesn’t make sense for any animal, not to mention a large-brained hominin that’s very closely related to us.”

But the Neanderthals’ longevity might have been irreversibly tied to the big game they hunted, Fa said, and once those prey items disappeared, our highly specialized cousins found it difficult to adapt.

“We are not saying that small prey was not part of the diet,” he said. “What we are saying is that the Neanderthals could have specialized to such an extent that [it] did not allow them to use a superabundant but more difficult to catch food source.”

Original article:

national geographic
By Ker Than, March 11, 2013

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Topic Neanderthals ate veggies.

An international team of researchers, led by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and the University of York, has provided the first molecular evidence that Neanderthals not only ate a range of cooked plant foods, but also understood its nutritional and medicinal qualities.
Until recently Neanderthals, who disappeared between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago, were thought to be predominantly meat-eaters. However, evidence of dietary breadth is growing as more sophisticated analyses are undertaken.

Researchers from Spain, the UK and Australia combined pyrolysis gas-chromatography-mass spectrometry with morphological analysis of plant microfossils to identify material trapped in dental calculus (calcified dental plaque) from five Neanderthals from the north Spanish site of El Sidrón.

Their results, published in Naturwissenschaften – The Science of Nature* this week, provide another twist to the story – the first molecular evidence for medicinal plants being used by a Neanderthal individual.

The researchers say the starch granules and carbohydrate markers in the samples, plus evidence for plant compounds such as azulenes and coumarins, as well as possible evidence for nuts, grasses and even green vegetables, argue for a broader use of ingested plants than is often suggested by stable isotope analysis.

Lead author Karen Hardy, a Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) Research Professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and an Honorary Research Associate at the University of York, UK, said: “The varied use of plants we identified suggests that the Neanderthal occupants of El Sidrón had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings which included the ability to select and use certain plants for their nutritional value and for self-medication. While meat was clearly important, our research points to an even more complex diet than has previously been supposed.”
Earlier research by members of this team had shown that the Neanderthals in El Sidrón had the bitter taste perception gene. Now trapped within dental calculus researchers found molecular evidence that one individual had eaten bitter tasting plants.

Dr Stephen Buckley, a Research Fellow at the University of York’s BioArCh research facility, said: “The evidence indicating this individual was eating bitter-tasting plants such as yarrow and camomile with little nutritional value is surprising. We know that Neanderthals would find these plants bitter, so it is likely these plants must have been selected for reasons other than taste.”

Ten samples of dental calculus from five Neanderthals were selected for this study. The researchers used thermal desorption and pyrolysis gas-chromatography-mass spectrometry to identify both free/unbound and bound/polymeric organic components in the dental calculus. By using this method in conjunction with the extraction and analysis of plant microfossils, they found chemical evidence consistent with wood-fire smoke, a range of cooked starchy foods, two plants known today for their medicinal qualities, and bitumen or oil shale trapped in the dental calculus.

Professor Matthew Collins, who heads the BioArCh research facility at York, said: “Using mass spectrometry, we were able to identify the building blocks of carbohydrates in the calculus of two adults, one individual in particular having apparently eaten several different carbohydrate-rich foods. Combined with the microscopic analysis it also demonstrates how dental calculus can provide a rich source of information.”

The researchers say evidence for cooked carbohydrates is confirmed by both the cracked/roasted starch granules observed microscopically and the molecular evidence for cooking and exposure to wood smoke or smoked food in the form of a range of chemical markers including methyl esters, phenols, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons found in dental calculus.

Professor Les Copeland from the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, University of Sydney, Australia, said: “Our research confirms the varied and selective use of plants by Neanderthals.”

The study also provides evidence that the starch granules reported from El Sidrón represent the oldest granules ever to be confirmed using a biochemical test, while ancient bacteria found embedded in the calculus offers the potential for future studies in oral health.

The archaeological cave site of El Sidrón, located in the Asturias region of northern Spain, contains the best collection of Neanderthal remains found in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the most important active sites in the world. Discovered in 1994, it contains around 2,000 skeletal remains of at least 13 individuals dating back around 47,300 to 50,600 years.

Archaeological and biological studies carried out since the year 2000 have contributed greatly to the knowledge of Neanderthals and how they lived.

Among the most important contributions is the identification of three Neanderthal genes: FOXP2, related to speech capacity; MCR1, related to pigmentation; and TAS2R38, related to the perception of bitter taste. The results of these studies have been incorporated into the macro project of the Neanderthal Genome and are being used in various genetic studies conducted in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute of Germany.

Antonio Rosas, of the Museum of Natural History in Madrid – CSIC (Spanish National Research Council), said: “El Sidrón has allowed us to banish many of the preconceptions we had of Neanderthals. Thanks to previous studies, we know that they looked after the sick, buried their dead and decorated their bodies. Now another dimension has been added relating to their diet and self-medication.”
Fieldwork at El Sidrón, conducted by researchers from the University of Oviedo, is funded by the Department of Culture, Principality of Asturias. The dental calculus samples used in this study were provided by the laboratory leading the study of the human remains discovered in El Sidrón, which is located at the Museum of Natural History in Madrid – CSIC.


Article Source: University of York Press Release.

* Hardy K et al. (2012). ‘Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus’ appears in Naturwissenschaften – The Science of Nature on Wednesday, 18 July at 18:00hrs UK time. DOI 10.1007/s00114-012-0942-0

Original article:
popular archaeology



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Topic: Ancient hunters

Archeologists report that Neanderthals, our vanished cousins who once occupied
much of Europe, may have been more versatile hunters than once supposed.

Neanderthals (or Neandertals) 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.

Do Neandertal technologies relate to distinct mobility patterns? How do they
vary in time? Do they differ significantly from the strategies developed by
early Anatomically Modern Humans,” asks Anne Delagnes and William Rendu of
France’s Université Bordeaux in the review. Neanderthals disappeared from the
archeological record about 30,000 years ago, about the time modern humans moved
into Europe. (A 2010 Science study of Neanderthals genes suggested 1% – 4%
of most people of Eurasian descent carry some Neanderthal in them.)

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.

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.”

Not so dumb after all, those Neanderthals.

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