Neanderthals Had a Sweet Tooth


Neanderthals had a sweet tooth and enjoyed cereals and other carbs, suggests a new study that analyzed food remains that were stuck on and between their teeth.

The study, published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adds to the growing body of evidence that Neanderthals weren’t just spear-wielding carnivores. Earlier this year we told you that Neanderthals enjoyed some surf with their turf.

Now these latest findings, on 44,000- to 36,000-year-old Neanderthals from Iraq and Belgium, indicate Neanderthals were also eating dates, barley, legumes and possibly water lilies. (According to Survival IQ, the flowers, seeds and rhizomes of water lilies are all edible. Many are probably sprayed and full of pollutants now, so I don’t recommend sampling them unless you’re an expert on this sort of thing.)

Anthropologist Amanda Henry from the Center for Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology led the study. She and colleagues Alison Brooks and Dolores Piperno further determined that the barley had been cooked. It was either boiled or baked. Quite a few papers lately have described improved methods in making such determinations, based on the microstructure of the individual grains.

“Overall, these data suggest that Neanderthals were capable of complex food-gathering behaviors that included both hunting of large game animals and the harvesting and processing of plant foods,” wrote Henry and her team.

They pointed out that dates and legumes have different harvest times, suggesting that Neanderthals “practiced seasonal rounds of collecting and scheduled returns to harvest areas.”

The study could only look at very recent foods eaten by the Neanderthals, since the other food remains would likely have washed away or digested. Imagine if you dropped dead right now. What would scientists find on your teeth?

Some guesses can be made about what else Neanderthals ate, however, based on plant finds near their living areas — in this case at Shanidar Cave in Iraq and Spy Cave in Belgium. At these sites the scientists found evidence for walnuts, chestnuts, relatives of chicory and lettuce, and relatives of modern culinary herbs. Prior research discovered that they also had access to acorns, cattails and pistachios.

In the past, some archaeologists argued that Neanderthals were not as food-savvy as modern humans, which could have led to their demise. This new study counters that claim, and instead strengthens the view that, as the authors wrote: “Neanderthal foraging patterns were much like those of modern humans, including small game, marine resources, plant foods, similar use of fire, some cooking, and other food processing.”

What then happened to the Neanderthals? If you’ve been reading here for a while, you know my view is that they were mostly absorbed into the modern human population, but Neanderthals, as a species, went extinct about 30,000 years ago.

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