Seeds, weeds and water lilies: Neanderthal and early modern human plant consumption

Both zooarchaeological and isotope analyses suggest that the Neanderthal diet focussed heavily on meat resources from large animals. However, such a restricted diet could have had negative consequences for Neanderthal populations, and there is a tacit assumption that plant resources must also have been important. The lack of preserved plant material from secure contexts has also impeded our further understanding of the exploitation of these resources and their contribution to the Neanderthal diet. This has necessitated novel approaches to study plant microremains (seeds, phytoliths, residues) which can be recovered from dental calculus and stone tools. A new study published in Journal of Human Evolution has sought to tackle this issue and simultaneously compare the diet of Neanderthals and early modern humans.

The authors were able to recover numerous plant microremains from both Neanderthal and modern human fossils, and from residues found on associated lithic artefacts. The study highlights that throughout their range, Neanderthals were exploiting various plant remains including water lily and various grass species. Importantly, detailed analysis of some of these microremains also highlight evidence for the cooking of some species, but also the processing and grinding of others. Interestingly, the quantity of material recovered from Middle and Upper Palaeolithic contexts were similar and indicate that both Neanderthals and modern humans exploited similar species.  The authors reject the idea that Neanderthals were only focused on plant material previously digested by other herbivore species.

Most importantly the study stresses that Neanderthals routinely exploited plant remains and probably invested in technology capable of processing various plant species. Whilst no grinding technology has been recovered from these contexts, the authors suggest that this may be difficult to identify or was perhaps less systematically invested in compared to modern humans. This study is still compatible with faunal evidence for Neanderthal exploitation of large game. The authors suggest that at a predicted low Neanderthal population density a focus on large game combined with a broad exploitation of plant resources would have been sufficient to meet their dietary needs. The similarities in plant exploitation strategies among both Neanderthal and modern humans leads the authors to suggest that the arrival of the latter species could have caused increased competition that subsequently led to consumption of large quantities of plant foods. It is suggested that this would not have been sufficient to compensate for the potentially reduced access to large game, particularly as smaller, faster game were not routinely exploited by Neanderthals. This is an important an interesting contribution and a vital first step in approaching a more holistic understanding of Neanderthal diet.

Full reference:

Henry, A.G. et al. 2014. Plant foods and the dietary ecology of Neanderthals and early modern humans; Journal of Human Evolution: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047248414000189

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