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Fossilized food stuck in Neandertal teeth indicates plant-rich diet

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plant food found in neanderthal teethAncient humans’ lax dental hygiene has been a boon for researchers looking for clues about early diets. Traces of fossilized foodstuffs wedged between Neandertal teeth have revealed plentiful traces of grains and other plants, supporting the theory that these heavy-browed humans were not just meat-eaters.

"Many researchers have proposed biologically or technologically mediated dietary differences" between modern humans and Neandertals as a key cause of the latter’s extinction, and "some scenarios have focused on the apparent lack of plant foods in Neandertal diets," a team of researchers noted in a new study. Scattered evidence has placed plant products on the scene of Neandertal sites, but these traces had been "fragmentary and not always unequivocally linked to diet."

Fortunately for paleobiologists, the mineralization process quickly "traps and preserves many components of the oral environment, including bacteria and food particles," leaving traces of Middle Paleolithic meals in the mouths that ate them.

After analyzing a selection of these particles from European and Middle Eastern Neandertal dental remains, the team found "direct evidence for Neanderthal consumption of a variety of plant foods." Researchers examined content found on seven teeth from three individuals—two unearthed in Belgium and one in Iraq. The study, led by Amanda Henry of the Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology, was published online December 27 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Some of the Paleolithic snacks seem to have included legumes, date palms and grass seeds. The grasses were from the Triticeae group, which includes wild varieties of barley, rye and wheat relatives. 

In addition to profiling the types of found-foods these ancient humans were consuming, the researchers were also able to assess some of the preparation methods, which included cooking. This culinary step "represents a significant shift in human behavior, by improving the nutritional quality of plant foods and potentially altering the social organization of human groups," the researcher noted.

From the individual from the Iraq site (Shanidar Cave), for example, the team found that 42 percent of the recovered starch was from cooked materials, though Henry and her colleagues "expect that the actual proportion of cooked foods within the diet of this individual was probably much higher." To better assess starch grains from the samples, the researchers tried cooking similar plant products and found that heating the starches for more than half an hour rendered them largely unidentifiable, and thus they would not have been categorizable in fossil form.

The new findings suggest, "an overall sophistication in Neanderthal dietary regimes" and 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," the researchers concluded. Thankfully for the researchers, these early humans’ tool selection did not likely include floss.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Acik

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  1. 1. bengreenfield 6:22 pm 12/27/2010

    Interesting. I’d be curious to hear what Paleo Diet proponents have to say about this…

    Ben from

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  2. 2. Semiahmoo 10:03 pm 12/27/2010

    Vegetation stuck between the teeth of a dead Neanderthal simply means the the person starved to death after having to eat vegetation. It does not prove that Neanderthals normally consumed vegetation.

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  3. 3. E-boy 10:39 pm 12/27/2010

    Depends on which proponents you are asking about to be honest. There are the group that base their dietary philosophy on assumptions about primitive diet that are based on little or no evidence and those that actually used an evidence based approach and go out of their way to make sure two thirds of their diet is plant based, and the vast majority of their meat is fish and fowl with a smattering of red meat.

    Arguably "Paleo-diet" is a bit of a misnomer though because hunter gatherers use what is on hand and that varies quite a bit from one place to another. Most figures quoted are based on locales of high or average productivity, because those areas sustained enough of a population density to leave evidence. Traditional innuit diets were and in some places still are remarkably carnivorous. Still, they found ways to make the most of their limited options.

    A really good book about food and it’s impact on human evolution (in particularly the act of cooking it) is "Catching Fire" The author’s name escapes me at the moment, but it’s a fascinating read.

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  4. 4. rloldershaw 11:32 pm 12/27/2010

    Perhaps that individual just preferred salad bars to the meat platter?

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  5. 5. Diesel67 4:58 pm 12/29/2010

    Agriculture (domestication of plants and animals) did not begin until 10000 to 12000 years ago, long after the Neandertals disappeared.

    D. Cota – I think you meant indigenous (native), not indigent (miserably poor).

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  6. 6. 4:08 pm 07/12/2012

    This doesn’t seem to contradict paleo at all. Lots of meat and veggies. I’m sure there were various groups of people who had varying levels of access to specific animals and plants to consume, so of course some area will be more plant-heavy and others more animal-heavy.

    Kevin of

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