Isotope studies show that Neanderthals were alpha predators – Archeology


Neanderthals lived mainly on meat, it has been suspected for a long time, but not categorically proven. Now, a new study published Monday in PNAS provides molecular support for the theory of their carnivorous predilection.

He even postulates that Neanderthals were among the leading predators in their field, even after anatomically modern humans began to arrive among them.

The earliest ancestors of man would have survived on plants, much like the largest apes of today, the gorilla. However, early vegetarians among the hominids died out and died out, while carnivores continued to this day.

Omnivory seems to have become something of the time of the tiny Australopithecus, who lived 3 to 4 million years ago and ate everything that moved or did not move. Recovery of dead animals slaughtered by other predators seems to have been a widespread practice.

At the moment of much bigger Homo erectus, the taste for meat was firmly anchored, even if it is not sure that these first hominins are cleverly trapped or stabbed their dinner. They may have recovered, not hunted, big game too, it should be added.

It's pretty clear that after a few million years, the ancestral hominin with Neanderthals and modern humans had become an avid meat-hungry omnivore, so it was obvious that we both would pursue this habit.

Neanderthal teeth from the Arcy-sur-Cure Caves

Thilo Parg

The question is, what proportion of the diet was meat? Now, the latest study indicates that for Neanderthal this proportion was indeed "very large".

Mammoth or dead mushroom?

Until recently, the evidence has been rather rudimentary. For example, spoiled animal bones (as they say in slang, "archaeological evidence") have been discovered in Neanderthal areas.

A recent study postulated that Neanderthals had developed a thickened thorax – compared to us, Homo sapiens slender – in order to accommodate its enlarged livers and kidneys because of its high protein diet. Weapons used by the Neanderthal, presumably to chase dinner rather than vicious carrots, have also been identified. A recent study even suggests that they might have developed spears that they could launch from far away, instead of just sticking the spear to their prey up close.

But the latest crucial evidence comes from the molecular analysis of nitrogen isotopes present in collagen, a protein that was discovered in turn in two Neanderthal sites in France: Les Cottés and the Cave of the Reindeer. It's not really a sample size, from a statistical point of view, but the results are consistent with the other evidence.

Isotopes are variants of an atom that have different weights because their number of neutrons is different. For example, proteins – which contain nitrogen – may have nitrogen 14 and heavier nitrogen (with an extra neutron). The proportions of the two nitrogen isotopes can be informative.

3D Reconstruction of the Neandertal Tooth Cottés sampled in the isotope study

Adeline Le Cabec

Nitrogen 14 and nitrogen proportions in Neanderthal bones are similar to those of large current carnivores, such as wolves. This strongly suggests, according to Klervia Jaouen of the Max Planck Institute of Evolution Anthropology and the International Team, that Neanderthals ate mostly meat with a few vegetables on the market. side.

It should be noted that Neanderthals have existed for several hundred thousand years and that there was a range of morphologies and, probably, a range of behaviors. Note, for example, in modern man the morphological differences between the Kalahari Bushmen and the Northern Europeans, and the dietary differences from one country to another.

Another 2014 study on Neanderthal coprolites (fossilized feces) did not dispute about the meat's habit, but focused on the element. Neanderthal diet plant: likes roots, berries and nuts.

The bottom line was that Neanderthals were obviously omnivorous, like us, but attached much more importance to meat than we tend to do.

So what animals did Neanderthals eat from isotopes?

Previous studies have suggested that mammoth meat and freshwater fish produce high nitrogen ratios. The same is true for spoiled meat, baby animals, cooked food (there is a heated debate over whether Neanderthals could control the fire rather than just using the fire they use). have met) – and mushrooms. It seems that eating mushrooms can also lead to high isotopic values ​​of nitrogen.

The team added that the archaeological evidence was favorable to reindeer hunting but not fishing, and one of the two sites they visited did not smell of mammoth cooking: high isotope ratios in loose bone collagen could be explained by the sheer consumption of herbivores. "

In short, we do not know what they ate exactly, and this study is not a definite proof. But this reinforces the position that Neanderthals were not vegetarians and that they ate a lot of meat – up to 80% of their diet, say some scientists. If they ate plants, it was the steak side dish.

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