Neandertals’ diet put meat in their bones

A pair of Neandertal meat eaters emerged from this Croatian cave. Smith/Northern Illinois University

Neandertals’ bones preserve a story of their consuming passion for flesh. Telltale chemicals in two fossils now portray Neandertals as avid meat eaters who hunted often and skillfully.

Neandertals lived in Europe and the Middle East from about 130,000 to 28,000 years ago. The new information counters a theory that they mainly scavenged scraps of meat from abandoned carcasses, says a team led by archaeologist Michael P. Richards of the University of Oxford in England.

“Our findings provide conclusive proof that European Neandertals were top-level carnivores who lived on a diet of mainly hunted animal meat,” contends team member Fred H. Smith, an anthropologist at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

Richards’ group analyzed the proportions of stable forms of carbon and nitrogen in bone samples from a Neandertal jaw and skull fragment. A preponderance of carbon signals heavy consumption of plants in the last few years of an organism’s life; nitrogen’s dominance betrays intense meat eating. The finds came from a 28,000-year-old Croatian cave (SN: 10/30/99, p. 277).

Nitrogen values in the two fossils equal those found in saber-toothed cats and other nonhuman, Stone Age carnivores, the researchers report in the June 20 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The data thus overwhelmingly establish these Neandertals as meat eaters, they conclude.

In two previous publications, a French team found chemical signs of meat eating in three other European Neandertal fossils dating to between 130,000 and 40,000 years ago. Other evidence for hunting and meat eating had been based on prey species found at Neandertal sites (SN: 8/1/98, p. 72) and remnants of Neandertal hunting weapons (SN: 7/3/99, p. 4).

Ice Age Europe’s barren landscape necessitated a reliance on meat, comments Curtis W. Marean of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Scientists still need to probe the chemical makeup of Middle Eastern Neandertals, he says.

“It’s clear that Neandertals often ate meat and hunted,” remarks Christopher B. Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. That similarity with modern humans doesn’t resolve whether the species interbred, he notes.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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