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000628 Study: Neanderthals Ate Mostly Meat

June 14, 2000

Washington - If you ever have a Neanderthal over for a backyard barbecue, forget the salad, the corn on the cob and the baked potato. All he'll want is the meat, and lots of it.

A new study of Neanderthal bones suggests that what the hominid 28,000 years ago had for dinner - and for breakfast and lunch - was meat, and very little else.

“Their diet was about 90% meat,” said Paul B. Pettitt of Oxford University in England, co-author of a study appearing Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “This means they were efficient hunters and not just scavengers as some have suggested.”

A life so centered on meat, said Pettitt, means that the lowbrowed, hairy Neanderthal was able to organize complex hunts that brought down big and dangerous game.

“This study suggests that the difference between Neanderthals and modern humans was only a matter of degree,” said Erik Trinkaus, a Washington University at St. Louis anthropologist and co-author of the study. “Modern humans were probably more efficient in terms of their organization, but the Neanderthals were very close.”

Neanderthal-like hominids first appeared in Europe, probably migrating from Africa, around 300,000 years ago, said Pettitt. The “classic” period of Neanderthal presence in Europe started about 120,000 years ago. By about 28,000 years ago, the Neanderthal was gone from the fossil record, he said.

Modern humans arrived in Europe about 32,000 years ago, about 4,000 years before the Neanderthal disappeared.

Some experts have suggested that the more primitive Neanderthal was simply overwhelmed and outhunted by his more sophisticated cousin. Others say the Neanderthal was biologically absorbed by early modern humans and disappeared as a distinct and separate species.

Trinkaus said the new study does not settle that debate, but it does show the Neanderthal was not just simple, stupid and brutish.

“This study implies a much higher degree of social organization complexity than is frequently attributed to the Neanderthals,” said Trinkaus. “They were much more equal to modern humans in many ways.”

One big difference, though, was food choices.

Studies of bones from the early modern humans in Europe suggest they had a more varied diet, eating smaller animals, such as rabbits, and lots of fish - up to 30% of their diet.

But for the Neanderthal, it was meat, meat and more meat.

Europe of 28,000 years ago was enjoying a warm period between two extremes of the Ice Age, Pettitt said. The plains of Europe were grassy and probably included vast herds of animals, which he calls “lawn mowers.”

As a result, the Neanderthal hunter preyed on mammoth, horse, deer, woolly rhino and other large animals.

When conditions changed and fewer of these animals were available, the Neanderthal may have had a more difficult time adjusting than did the competing humans who lived on a more varied diet, said Pettitt.

The researchers probed the diet of the Neanderthal by measuring the isotopic ratios of nitrogen in skulls and jawbones recovered from a cave in Croatia.

“Our bones record the isotope signatures of the foods we have eaten in our lifetimes,” co-author Fred H. Smith of Northern Illinois University said in a statement. “By measuring these isotope signatures in fossil bones, we can reconstruct aspects of the diets.”

Bones formed from a diet rich in meat contain a high ratio of an isotope called nitrogen- 15, said Trinkaus. The nitrogen-15 ratio of Neanderthal, he said, was almost like that of an African lion, which means a diet of meat and almost nothing else.

This is in contrast to the modern American diet, said Trinkaus, which is 20% to 30% meat or other animal products. The rest of the diet comes from vegetables, fruits and other plants.


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