Neanderthals living in southwestern France 55,000 to 40,000 years ago mostly ate red meat from extinct ancestors of modern bison, cattle and horses, according to a new study on a large, worn Neanderthal tooth. The extinct hominids were not above eating every edible bit of an animal, since they were dining for survival, explained Teresa Steele, one of the study's co-authors.
The new findings, which have been accepted for publication in the Journal of Human Evolution, also suggest beans, grains and nuts were off the Neanderthal menu. "We assume that Neanderthals were eating some plant foods, but given the present evidence, these plant foods were not significant sources of protein," explained Steele, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Davis.
She and her colleagues extracted fine powder from an upper right Neanderthal premolar, excavated at a now-collapsed rock shelter called Jonzac in southwest France. For comparison, they also extracted and analyzed bone collagen from animal remains unearthed at the site. These animals included the Steppe bison, aurochs, ancient horses, reindeer and hyenas.
The Neanderthal diet was limited in comparison to modern human diets, noted Steele, since early modern humans ate "more small, fast game, including birds and fish." This gave our ancestors "greater dietary flexibility and ultimately allowed their population sizes to increase more rapidly, allowing them to live at higher population densities."
"The study reconfirms previous studies that the Neanderthals were highly carnivorous and fed primarily on large mammals," said Richard Klein, a professor of anthropological sciences in the Department of Biology at Stanford University, adding, "I think it is totally convincing."