Tech UPTechnologyNeanderthals were carnivores, according to a new study

Neanderthals were carnivores, according to a new study

A new study published in PNAS confirms the hypothesis that Neanderthal man ( Homo neanderthalensis ), with whom Homo sapiens lived for about 10,000 years , was mainly carnivorous.

Neanderthals had to cope with severe weather conditions and were forced into continuous nomadism in search of resources for survival. It has been calculated that this species would need a minimum of four thousand calories a day to survive, and there is considerable consensus when it comes to stating that our relatives would resort to hunting to meet their energy needs. In the archaeological record there are numerous indications that the Neanderthal man was a great hunter who developed complex strategies and developed very sophisticated hunting tools.

However, there are still some doubts and controversies regarding the details of the diet of our relatives. Were they exclusively carnivores or did they supplement their diet with plant resources? Did they only hunt land animals or did they also eat fish? Could they turn to carrion in times of need? What kind of prey did they select?

In recent years, evidence has been accumulating to support the idea that Neanderthals were omnivores, and that vegetables would be a not inconsiderable part of their diet. For example, in 2014, a work published in the magazine Plos One indicated that these hominids could complete their diet with tubers, berries and nuts. The analysis had been made from the analysis of human fecal remains found at the El Salt site in Alicante. A more recent study, published in Nature in 2017, showed evidence that the Neanderthals in the El Sidrón cave, in Asturias, had a more vegetarian diet than their congeners studied in other sites, and another work published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2018 also found evidence of a diet rich in vegetables by analyzing the tartar on the teeth of Neanderthal remains from five different sites.

Isotopes to study the Paleo diet

The analysis of stable isotopes (mainly carbon and nitrogen) in bone remains is a very useful tool to study the diet of prehistoric hominids. The technique is based on isotopes: atoms of the same chemical element that have different numbers of neutrons and that are found in different relative proportions in organic matter. For example, we know that nitrogen isotope ratios (expressed as δ15N, which is the percentage of nitrogen-15 atoms out of every trillion nitrogen-13 atoms) increase between trophic levels, and this gives us an idea of protein consumption animal.

“At the isotopic level, it could be said that ‘we are what we eat,’ ” explains Elías Sánchez Cañadillas, a researcher at the Department of Prehistory, Anthropology and Ancient History at the University of La Laguna and a specialist in this analysis technique. “If you have eaten more meat, more percentage of nitrogen 15 we will find when analyzing the nitrogen isotopes of the collagen of the bones of the individual in question.”

Studies carried out to date have shown that Neanderthals have very high δ15N values in their bones, higher than those found in other carnivores with whom they lived in the same study areas, which seems to confirm that these hominids were heavy consumers. meat and would be at the top of the food chain.

However, there are different interpretations about the meaning of these high nitrogen isotope values: some studies state that they are indicative of a diet that also includes fish on the menu , others say that it is due to the consumption of mammoths, which also have a high δ15N, and it is not ruled out that they are due to the consumption of rotten meat or cooked food.

The latest work, published in the journal PNAS , includes the results of the isotopic analysis of the bones of two individuals of the species H. neanderthalensis and associated fauna found at two sites dating from the transition period from the Middle to Upper Paleolithic (Les Cottés and Grotte du Renne, France). The researchers used a technique that focuses on studying isotopes at the individual amino acid level, not the entire protein , and allows for more precise identification of food sources.

According to the authors of the work, the results of the analysis of nitrogen isotopes support the theory that Neanderthals were large consumers of herbivores. In addition, the archaeological findings found in these sites suggest that, specifically, the inhabitants of this area hunted reindeer but did not consume freshwater fish. On the other hand, the data from the carbon isotope analysis do not support the mammoth consumption hypothesis.

Does this mean that Neanderthals only ate meat? According to the researchers, the results do not rule out the occasional consumption of other food sources, but they confirm that the diet of our relatives would be mainly carnivorous. It must also be taken into account that the place where the studied individuals lived can also be decisive: while most analyzes of nenderthal remains from southern Europe show a diet in which vegetables played a leading role , the findings from the north of the continent suggest that these populations consumed a greater portion of meat.

On the other hand, in recent years new studies have been carried out that suggest that, when an individual is going through a period of famine, the proportions of nitrogen 15 also increase, because in this state resources of the organism itself are used. “The Neanderthal is always spoken of as a great carnivore, but it must be taken into account that prehistoric populations must have been quite hungry, and the consumption of meat should not have been daily,” Sánchez explains. “We do not know to what extent we are talking about super carnivores or simply individuals who used their own resources in times of scarcity.”


Jaouen et al, 2019. Exceptionally highδ15N values in collagen single aminoacids confirm Neandertals as high-trophiclevel carnivores. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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