The Neanderthals were our close cousins who went extinct ~30,000 years ago. Their disappearance is a bit of an evolutionary mystery, given they were very similar to us and we’re still alive. In fact, where they differed they were often better suited to their environment than we were, with bigger brains, bigger muscles and a stature built to cope with the ice age1. So why did we survive?
For many years some scientists believed the answer may lie in our diets. An analysis of the isotopes in Neanderthal bones (which come from their food) revealed they had a diet similar to wolves, eating pretty much only meat. On the other hand we have a much more varied diet, including much more green stuff. This variety may have made us more adaptable to the changes that occurred during the last glacial period2. We altered what we ate whilst the Neanderthals suffered as their limited set of food sources disappeared in the snow.
However, this argument was refuted by the discovery of plant material embedded in the calculus that developed around Neanderthal teeth. This showed that they weren’t pure carnivores and had a much more varied diet than previously thought. In fact, it would seem the Neanderthals were eating just about any plant they could their hands on; so the argument that their diet was limited doesn’t hold water. This plant material also shows signs of being burnt, revealing that the Neanderthals also cooked their food (something else that had been debated)3.
But perhaps the most interesting discovery to come from all this is that some of the plants Neanderthals ate weren’t nutritious but do have a medicinal component. Things like camomile and yarrow, which have next to no nutritional value (and don’t taste that nice to boot) do have a history of being used as “traditional” remedies and were consumed by the Neanderthals4. Might they also have discovered the health benefits of these foods?
However, scientists from the Natural History Museum (the one in London) have just published a paper that disputes these claims. They note that many modern societies will eat the digestive remains of other animals, revealing another possible way these plants got into the Neanderthal diet: through the consumption of herbivores’ stomach contents. As disgusting as this may seem reports from the modern societies which still eat stomach contents claim it is actually rather tasty5. Personally I’m happy to trust the reports and not test it out myself.
Most of the plant material identified in Neanderthal calculus are phytoliths, resilient microscopic plant parts that could survive the journey through digestion. In fact; analysis of animal poop has revealed that phytoliths can travel the entire length of the digestive system of a herbivore and still be recognisable6. Thus if Neanderthals were eating them in the middle of this process they would be preserved.
However, not all of Neanderthal plant remains are in the form of phytoliths. Some more vulnerable bits of plant were also found in the calculus. Could these have made their way into the Neanderthal diet if they were eating the stomach contents of animals? The researchers from the NHM (including the famous Chris Stringer) can offer nothing but speculation. Perhaps it may have survived if the animal was killed and their stomach eaten shortly after they’d ingested the plant matter, but there is no data to say so one way or the other5.
As such I’m not inclined to dismiss the idea that Neanderthals were in fact eating plants themselves until it can be shown that all of the plant remains found in their teeth could be explained by eating stomach contents. Someone has some rather nasty experimental archaeology ahead of them to try and figure out what happens to plants in an herbivores stomach.
Of course, without this research the possibility that Neanderthals were simply eating the stomach contents of animals also remains. Perhaps their diet may not have been quite as varied as we once thought (although it would certainly be much more disgusting).
Also, if the stomach-eating hypothesis was proven would this be the earliest example of haggis in human (pre)history?
- Boyd, R., Silk, J. B., Walker, P. L., & Hagen, E. H. (2000). How humans evolved (Vol. 8). New York: WW Norton.
- Bocherens, H., Drucker, D. G., Billiou, D., Patou-Mathis, M., & Vandermeersch, B. (2005). Isotopic evidence for diet and subsistence pattern of the Saint-Césaire I Neanderthal: review and use of a multi-source mixing model.Journal of human evolution, 49(1), 71-87.
- Henry, A. G., Brooks, A. S., & Piperno, D. R. (2011). 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, 108(2), 486-491.
- Hardy, K., Buckley, S., Collins, M. J., Estalrrich, A., Brothwell, D., Copeland, L., … & Rosas, A. (2012). Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Naturwissenschaften, 99(8), 617-626.
- Buck, L. T., & Stringer, C. B. (2013). Having the stomach for it: a contribution to Neanderthal diets?. Quaternary Science Reviews.
- Bamford, M. K., Neumann, F. H., Pereira, L. M., Scott, L., Dirks, P. H. G. M., & Berger, L. R. (2010). Botanical remains from a coprolite from the Pleistocene hominin site of Malapa, Sterkfontein Valley, South Africa. Palaeontologia Africana, 45, 23-28.