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Neanderthals were highly carnivorous

They lived in family groups and ate almost exclusively meat

Tom BjorklundDrawing of a Neanderthal father and daughterTom Bjorklund

A Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) population that lived at the Cueva de los Moros cave site in Gabasa, Spain, around 150,000 years ago appears to have had a highly carnivorous diet. An international study in which a Brazilian scientist participated analyzed enamel samples from a Neanderthal tooth found at the site and discovered that its owner dined almost exclusively on the meat of large animals, but without consuming the blood or bones. The paper was published in the scientific journal PNAS in October.

For the first time, the group of scientists analyzed the isotopic ratio of the chemical element zinc to understand the diet of Neanderthals, a species related to modern humans (Homo sapiens) that inhabited parts of Europe and Asia between 400,000 and 40,000 years ago. The ratio is calculated based on the proportion of two different forms (isotopes) of zinc present in a sample.

“We found an extremely low zinc isotope ratio in the tooth,” explains Brazilian archaeologist Jéssica Mendes Cardoso, one of the authors of the article, who is doing a joint doctorate at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of the University of São Paulo (MAE-USP) and the Géosciences Environnement Toulouse (GET) lab in France. “The lower this ratio, the higher the owner of the sample was in the food chain.”

The result places the Neanderthal at the top of the food web, indicating that it ate a variety of animals. The group also analyzed samples from other carnivorous predators that lived in the region, such as lynxes and wolves, and from herbivores, such as deer and rabbits. “It was a great opportunity to work on the Iberian peninsula, where other methods of analysis have suggested that paleodiets were plant-based in some locations,” said French geochemist Klervia Jaouen, who led the study, in an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP.

Lourdes MontesThe Cueva de los Moros cave site in Gabasa, SpainLourdes Montes

The most common approach to studying paleodiets is to look for carbon and nitrogen traces in the samples. The nitrogen isotope ratio in a piece of bone, for example, can indicate an individual’s position in the food chain. But there is a problem: nitrogen is found in the collagen of bones or the roots of teeth, both of which deteriorate over the years, especially in places with a temperate climate. The method therefore works best in cold environments, such as northern Europe or Siberia, where time has less of a toll. The preservation of nitrogen isotopes is almost impossible in samples over 50,000 years old from southern Europe, such as those from the Spanish cave site.

In these cases, it is more beneficial to study the zinc isotopes present in tooth enamel. “The carbon and nitrogen in bones tell you about the diet consumed in the last ten years of the individual’s life,” says Cardoso. “Since tooth enamel is not renewed over time, zinc isotope analysis can show you what their diet was like when the tooth was formed.”

The study’s findings are in line with a scientific consensus that began developing in the 1990s. Based on animal traces found at archaeological sites and successful nitrogen isotope analyses, various studies have concluded that Neanderthals were skilled hunters with a highly carnivorous diet. Their diet included deer and even mammoths.

Some Neanderthal populations that lived near the Mediterranean Sea, however, seem to have had a more varied menu than those in northern Europe. Research carried out since the turn of the century has shown that in addition to a significant amount of plants and mushrooms, they may also have eaten other food types, such as seeds and nuts. A study conducted on the Iberian coast found evidence that some Neanderthals consumed seafood, such as molluscs and crabs. This greater diversity of food sources, however, was not corroborated by the Cueva de los Moros tooth study.

Lourdes MontesNeanderthal tooth found at the Cueva de los Moros cave site in Gabasa, SpainLourdes Montes

Understanding the Neanderthal diet is an important question for science. More diverse eating habits can be directly linked to a species’ evolutionary success. One of the main hypotheses for the adaptive success of Homo sapiens at least partly credits their lower reliance on meat compared to Neanderthals, with whom they cohabited and even reproduced in certain parts of Eurasia.

Another key factor to understanding the evolutionary success of a species involves its degree of social development, which facilitates certain aspects of life, such as migration and access to new food sources. Despite H. sapiens being ahead in this regard, researchers are now discovering that Neanderthals also lived in small related groups.

An article published in the scientific journal Nature in October revealed genetic family relationships between Neanderthal remains for the first time. Authored by a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, the research identified a Neanderthal father and daughter that inhabited the Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov caves in the Altai Mountains, Siberia, 54,000 years ago.

The region is by far the most important to Neanderthal history from a genetic point of view. “The Altai Mountains in southern Siberia represent the easternmost frontier of Neanderthal territory,” Stéphane Peyrégne, one of the authors of the paper, told Pesquisa FAPESP. “Several Neanderthal samples that have helped reconstruct the history of these hominins in the Middle Paleolithic [300,000 to 30,000 years ago] were discovered at two archaeological sites in the region—the Denisova and Chagyrskaya caves.” The findings are so useful because despite their age, their Neanderthal DNA was exceptionally well-preserved thanks to the Siberian cold.

Tooth and bone fragments from 13 different Neanderthals—7 males and 6 females, including 5 children—were analyzed by the team, more than in any other study. Eleven of them lived in Chagyrskaya Cave at the same time. A vertebra from an adult male and a tooth from an adolescent girl indicated that they were father and daughter. The samples also revealed that two of the father’s cousins lived in Chagyrskaya Cave and that another adult woman and a boy who lived there were also related. If they had the habit of all eating together, it is possible that they shared a piece of mammoth meat together.

Scientific articles
JAOUEN, K. et al. A Neandertal dietary conundrum: Insights provided by tooth enamel Zn isotopes from Gabasa, Spain. PNAS. vol. 119, no. 43. oct. 17, 2022.
SKOV, L. et al. Genetic insights into the social organization of Neanderthals. Nature. vol. 610. oct. 20, 2022.