Neandertals ate stomach goop, and you can too

STUBBORN BUILDUP Big chunks of tartar on the teeth of Neandertals and other ancient groups hold clues to diet (human skull shown), including the possibility Neandertals ate animals’ stomach contents.

G. Richard Scott/Univ. of Nevada Reno

Could I interest you in eating the partially digested stomach contents of a porcupine?

No? Maybe a spot of reindeer stomach, then. Still no? Well, that’s curious.

The Western aversion to these dishes is odd, because people around the world have long partaken of — even delighted in — the delicacy known to medical science as chyme. That’s what becomes of food after it’s chewed, swallowed and mushed around in the stomach for a while with a healthy dose of hydrochloric acid. And, researchers now suggest, Neandertals were no exception. Eating chyme may even explain the presence of some puzzling plant matter found in Neandertal’s tartar-crusted teeth.

Neandertals didn’t have great dental care, and in the last few years anthropologists have begun to take advantage of monstrous tartar buildup on fossilized teeth to figure out what the hominids ate. Various chemical signatures, starch grains and even tiny plant fossils called phytoliths get preserved in the tartar, also known as calculus.

Just what Neandertals ate has been more of a puzzle than paleo dieters might have you believe. Isotope analyses of fossilized bones and teeth suggest Neandertals ate very high on the food chain, with high-protein diets akin to those of wolves or hyenas. But wear marks on their teeth suggest the Neandertal diet consisted of more animals in colder high-latitude areas, and more of a mix of plants and animals in warmer areas. Tartar analyses support the idea that Neandertals ate their veggies, and have also suggested the presence of plants considered inedible, or at least unpalatable and non-nutritious. These include some plants like yarrow and chamomile with medicinal value, so one team suggested Neandertals self-medicated.

The Roman dish rigatoni con la Pajata includes a sausage of calf intestine containing chyme, or partially digested stomach contents. milky.way/Flickr

But now anthropologists Laura Buck and Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum suggest in Quaternary Science Reviews that instead, Neandertals may have picked up some of these plants by eating the stomach contents of their prey. That would explain the presence of plants with no obvious nutritional value to hominids.

They would hardly be unique. Consider explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s 1893 description of Inuit eating reindeer chyme, as quoted by Buck and Stringer:

“It has undergone a sort of stewing in the process of semi-digestion, while the gastric juice provides a somewhat sharp and aromatic sauce. Many will no doubt make a wry face at the thought of this dish, but they really need not do so. I have tasted it, and found it not uneatable, though somewhat sour, like fermented milk.”

The sourness would come from stomach acid; the pH of human chyme is around 2, similar to lemon juice. In other words, perfectly edible.

Only in today’s warped food scene could people refuse to eat anything but boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The Inuit traditionally ate reindeer chyme because it was a source of plant matter, a rare commodity in their environment. Eating nothing but protein can be toxic, so letting the reindeer do the hard work of finding all the most tender mosses and lichens is pretty smart. The KhoeSan eat porcupine stomach because of the animals’ diet of medicinal plants.

Chyme has not died out as a culinary treat. A more palatable presentation for the Western palate is found in rigatoni con la Pajata (or con la Pagliata), a classic dish still found in Rome. To prepare it, the upper section of the small intestine of an unweaned, milk-fed calf is cooked with the chyme still inside. The enzyme mix rennet, used in cheese-making, is naturally found in the stomach and turns the chyme into a rich creamy sauce. With some rigatoni and tomato sauce, apparently it’s quite delicious.

My husband’s first response when I described the dish was, “Hmmm. I’d try that.” Now that’s the spirit.

Erika Engelhaupt is a freelance science writer and editor based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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