Neanderthals and Their Diet

Abstract

Neanderthals are a Late Pleistocene hominin adapted to cool high‐latitudes environments. Popular views on how Neanderthals adapted to these environments have changed over time. While once thought of as a largely scavenging hominin, Neanderthals are now accepted to be competent hunters who sourced a major part of their nutrition from ungulates. Neanderthal diet appears to be highly terrestrial but there are difficulties ruling out a contribution of marine foods in many regions. While the important role of large and medium ungulates in debates about Neanderthal diet has largely been settled, recent discussions about Neanderthal diet have explored the extent of their diet varied, the role of minor foods (plant, small mammal and marine foods) and dietary flexibility.

Key Concepts

  • Zooarchaeology mortality profiles show Neanderthals were competent hunters.
  • Neanderthals predominantly relied on large‐ and medium‐sized ungulates.
  • There is little clear evidence of Neanderthal hunting methods, important but this is also the case for the earliest modern human in Europe. Neanderthals appear to have relied on thrown or thrusted spears, which were both hafted and unhafted.
  • Plants played a crucial role in diet, even though meat was nutritionally much more important.
  • Important questions remain concerning how diet was processed and how much diet varied.

Keywords: zooarchaeology; predator niche; hunting; isotopes; dental wear; dental calculus; plant use; paleo diet

Figure 1. Carbon and nitrogen isotope values of bone collagen from Neanderthals and early modern humans from Europe. Errors on the isotope measurements are typically ±0.2‰ for both δ13C and δ15N. Reproduced with permission from Richards and Trinkaus .
Figure 2. Neanderthal archaeological sites with evidence of macrobotanical remains and sites where Neanderthal dental calculus has been analysed.
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Further Reading

Churchill SE (2014) Thin on the Ground: Neandertal Biology, Archeology and Ecology. John Wiley & Sons: Oxford.

Fiorenza L, Benazzi S, Tausch J, et al. (2011) Molar macrowear reveals Neanderthal eco‐geographic dietary variation. PLoS One 6: e14769. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0014769.

Fiorenza L, Benazzi S, Henry AG, et al. (2015) To meat or not to meat? New perspectives on Neanderthal ecology. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 156 (suppl): 43–71. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.22659.

Klein RG and Steele TE (2008) Gibraltar data are too sparse to inform on Neanderthal exploitation of coastal resources. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105: E115.

Power RC and Williams FL (2018) Evidence of increasing intensity of food processing during the Upper Palaeolithic of western Eurasia. Journal of Palaeolithic Archaeology 1: 281–301.

Power RC, Salazar‐García DC, Rubini M, et al. (2018) Dental calculus indicates widespread plant use within the stable Neanderthal dietary niche. Journal of Human Evolution 119: 27–41. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2018.02.009.

Richards MP (2009) Stable isotope evidence for European upper paleolithic human diets. In: Hublin J‐J and Richards MP (eds) The Evolution of Hominin Diets: Integrating Approaches to the Study of Palaeolithic Subsistence, pp 251–257. Springer: Dordrecht.

Stiner MC (2013) An unshakable Middle Palaeolithic? Trends versus conservatism in the predatory niche and their social ramifications. Current Anthropology 54: S288–S304. DOI: 10.1086/673285.

Will M, Kandel AW and Conard NJ (2019) Midden or Molehill: The Role of Coastal Adaptations in Human Evolution and Dispersal. Journal of World Prehistory 32 (1): 33–72. DOI: 10.1007/s10963-018-09127-4.

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Power, Robert C(Jun 2019) Neanderthals and Their Diet. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0028497]