Neanderthals ate fresh herbivores, not rotten meat


Isotope analysis throws doubt on previous diet research. Andrew Masterson reports.


A German reconstruction of a Neanderthal man.

A German reconstruction of a Neanderthal man, who in life, quite possibly, never tasted putrid flesh.

Markus Matzel/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Neanderthals were top level carnivores, even after the arrival of modern humans, chemical analysis indicates.

The finding, based on measures of nitrogen and carbon isotopes in two samples of Neanderthal collagen gathered from two sites in France, confirm a carnivorous diet.

It also does not support previously published suggestions that Neanderthals dined on putrid carrion left behind by other carnivores, or freshwater fish.

The latest research, led by Klervia Jaouen from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, tested carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios on single amino acids from collagen samples from Neanderthals recovered from sites at Les Cottés and Grotte du Renne. They conducted similar tests on faunal remains recovered from the same area.

The Neanderthal collagen, the scientists report in the journal PNAS, showed “exceptionally high [nitrogen] isotope ratios in their bulk bone or tooth collagen”.

The results, Jaouen and colleagues report, were wholly consistent with “mammal meat consumption”. There was no need to invoke other food sources, such as fish or mushrooms, nor food processes, such as cooking or fermentation arising from rot, to explain the readings.

The scientists acknowledge that their results do not preclude the occasional consumption of other food types and sources. However, they say, the isotope values of the Neanderthals strongly supports the contention that their main protein sources was “due to the consumption of different herbivores from different environments”.

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  1. http://www.paleoanthro.org/media/journal/content/PA20170044.pdf
  2. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/02/13/1814087116
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