Were Neanderthals "carnivores" after all?

New data speak in favor of a diet without fish, but with a lot of meat from large suckers

Hunt for mammoth, reindeer and co: The Neanderthals could have been mainly fed by the meat of large mammals. © Joel Lena / iStock
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Meat preferred: The diet of Neanderthals could have been more one-sided than previously thought, as suggested by new isotope analyzes. Accordingly, at least some of these Ice Age people ate almost exclusively the meat of large herbivores such as reindeer, mammoth, horse and Co. However fish was obviously not on the menu - contrary to previous assumptions.

The diet of Neanderthals is still puzzling. According to popular hypothesis, the Neanderthals mainly hunted large herbivorous mammals such as deer, reindeer, horses and mammoths and thus had a relatively narrow, specialized on the Ice Age fauna diet. But there is also evidence that Neanderthals were more versatile and regularly consumed vegetables, nuts and other plant foods.

Strange, too: some Neanderthals and early modern humans have higher levels of nitrogen isotopes in their teeth and bones than the wildlife around them. From this, some researchers conclude that Neanderthals must also have consumed a lot of fish and seafood - because these typically have higher isotope values ​​than terrestrial animals.

Tooth of an adult Neanderthal woman from Les Cottés in France. MPI f. evolutionary anthropology / A. Le Cabec

New isotope method detracts from diet

What was actually on the menu of Neanderthals has now been investigated by Klervia Jaouen from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and her colleagues using a new method. With this so-called "compound specific isotope analysis" (CSIA) it is possible to analyze the carbon and nitrogen isotopes of individual amino acids contained in the collagen.

This makes it possible to determine the origin of the cosumed food whether from the land or from the sea -
to determine better than before. The position of the food and its food in the food chain can also be determined from the isotope values. Researchers now use this method to study the remains of two approximately 45, 000-year-old Neanderthals from Les Cott s and the Grotte du Renne in France. display

Reindeer, horse and co but no fish

The result: "We were able to prove that Les Cott s' Neanderthal woman was a carnivore that had almost exclusively fed on land-based mammals, " says Jaouen. The clan of this Neanderthal woman hunted and therefore mainly reindeer and horses, which is confirmed by animal bones in the cave. These showed that carnivorous animals such as coyotes, hyenas, wolves and pods could have been part of the diet of this group.

"We were also able to confirm that the Neanderthal from the Grotte du Renne is an unskilled infant, whose mother was also a carnivore, " adds Jaouen. Indications of fish were found neither in the isotope values ​​nor in the finds from the cave. Thus, these results support the "classic" image of the Neanderthal as a hunter of the big ice age animals. Even if the Neanderthals enriched his diet with plants, his main food source remained the meat of reindeer, mammoth and Co.

Hardly any changes in the diet?

Interesting too: Apparently, the Neanderthals have changed their dietary habits over the millennia hardly changed. Until late, the diet of at least some groups was based primarily on the hunting and feeding of the glacial megafauna, as the current study suggests. That did not change either, as these prey became scarcer and competition from Homo sapiens grew.

"This study confirms that Homo sapiens, when he came to Europe and met the Neanderthals, was in direct competition with him for the great mammals as a source of food, " says Jaouens colleague Jean-Jacques Hublin, Whether both species actually followed the same survival and nutritional strategies at that time, the scientists now want to investigate by other finds using the new isotope method. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019; doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1814087116)

Source: PNAS, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

- Nadja Podbregar