The stereotypical representation of Neanderthals pictures them as killing the woolly mammoth. There is archeological evidence to back up a thesis of the neanderthal diet was carnivorous even at the same level of the polar bears, which included meals heavy in large herbivores like the woolly mammoth, reindeer, and woolly rhinoceros.
However, Neanderthal teeth tell a different story. Dental plaque is used to analyze the starches and proteins that were preserved in the plaque. When investigated the wear patterns on their teeth suggest a varied diet. Diet also varied depending on a location with significant regional differences. In some areas, studies imply that Neanderthals were consuming mostly plants, possibly including medicinal ones.
The significant discovery came when scientists analyzed the remains of Neanderthals from El Sidrón, Spain. The Neanderthals from El Sidrón showed zero signs of meat consumption. Not some small amount but complete round zero. Instead of meat, they got calories from plant foods gathered from the forest. Dental plaque was filled with remains of different kinds of nuts, mushrooms, and moss. Neanderthal vegans, how could that fit in the typical accepted image? What about protein and b12?
Dental plaque is a very useful tool because it can preserve genetic material from the food that animals eat for analysis. Laura Weyrich at the University of Adelaide and a team of researchers were able to produce an amazingly accurate look at what plant and animal species Neanderthals had been eating. They analyzed three samples. Two obtained fossils were from El Sidrón Cave in Spain, including the potential aspirin-popper, while one was from Spy Cave in Belgium (Sidrón Cave- Wikipedia). The analysis again proved the complete diversity of food depending on local habitat ecology that was in the line of optimal foraging theory (OFT).
Neanderthal diet didn’t exist in essence. Diet depended on where the Neanderthals in question lived. The Belgians, for example, followed the meat-heavy pattern because they had to. Genetic material from wild sheep, woolly rhinoceros, and some mushrooms was discovered in dental plaque with also some bones in the cave from horses, mammoths, reindeer, and rhinoceros. Bones tell the identical story as the dental plaque that these groups were hunters. In Belgian habitat, they did not forage for plant foods because there wasn’t any to be found. They had to adapt to survive the cold barren climate by hunting. They probably didn’t like it too much either.
The Spanish Neanderthals appeared to have a more comfortable life. They eat largely mushrooms, pine nuts, and moss, and other kinds of food we would get from foraging in a forest. Thus Neanderthals from the north were hunters, Neanderthals from the south were foragers.
What does this evidence tell us? One of the Neanderthals from Spain appeared to have a dental abscess and stomach bug and was self-medicating with poplar (Populus alba), a natural painkiller containing salicylic acid, the same active ingredient in the aspirin. The individual had also consumed the antibiotic-producing mold Penicillium. That is tens of thousands of years before Dr. Alexander Fleming used a strain of Penicillium to develop the first antibiotic, revolutionizing modern medicine. If we want to talk about the founders of medicine, well how about antibiotics and aspirin popping Neanderthals.
One other thing was interesting. Weyrich’s team also managed to completely sequence one particular microbe called Methanobrevibacter oralis that lacks genes for resisting antiseptics and digesting maltose. In time this microbe has adapted to hygiene and changing human diets. Weyrich’s team calculated that the Neanderthal strain split apart from those found in modern humans between 112,000 and 143,000 years ago which suggests that the two groups were trading Methanobrevibacter likely when they had sex.
So why are groups of Neanderthals living in the south being vegan? Probably because they can. There were much more friendly surroundings and a milder climate with more food sources. If we have something we can eat growing beside our cave would we go hunting? Just applying optimal foraging strategies, we have the answer. Neanderthals were anatomically more vegan than carnivorous, but in the northern parts during Ice Age, the climate was harsh and they had to adapt and that took some time. Both Neanderthals and modern humans evolved from Homo erectus. The earliest known migration waves of H. Erectus into Eurasia dated to 1.81 million years ago. Molecular clock genetic research had placed the divergence time of the Neanderthal and modern human lineages from 800,000 to 400,000 years ago. For this reason, most scholars believe Neanderthals descend, via Homo heidelbergensis. Homo erectus population that stayed in Africa would have evolved through the intermediate Homo rhodesiensis, into anatomically modern humans by 300,000 years ago or earlier.
Neanderthal evolved in Europe and humans did in Africa and there are some small physiological differences. Homo sapiens have smaller barrel-shaped chests and narrow pelvises. Neanderthals had bell-shaped torsos with wider pelvises. The conventional explanation has been that Neanderthals needed more oxygen due to the colder climate, so their bodies grew to hold a bigger respiratory system. But this is wrong. Living in the cold climate of Eurasia 300,000 to 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals settled in places like the Polar Urals and southern Siberia. In the midst of a tundra winter, with no plant food sources to be found, animal meat made of fat and protein remained the only energy source. Although the fat is easier to digest, it is scarce in cold conditions. Prey animals burned up their fat stores during the winter and became much leaner. The conclusion must be made that Neanderthals must have been eating a great deal of animal protein.
Protein places huge requirements on kidneys and liver to remove some of the toxic byproducts produced by burning it for energy. Humans have a protein ceiling of between 35 and 50 percent of calories in our diet. Eating much more than that can be dangerous. Neanderthals bodies found a way to utilize more protein by enlarging the liver and kidneys. Chests and pelvises widened also to accommodate these beefed-up organs giving them distinct look. If we look today at Inuit peoples, their diet subsists at times on all-meat and nothing else and they do have larger livers and kidneys and longer ribs than average Europeans. To survive the fat famine, Neanderthals undoubtedly also specialized in hunting massive animals like mammoths. They retain fat longer in poor conditions and require less energy and speed to kill than smaller swifter prey. Mammoths are too big to escape or evade, and we only have to kill one to feast for months because meat does not spoil in constant subzero temperatures. But as these mega-beasts vanished, Neanderthals likely struggled to chase down smaller, swifter prey. In the southern part like Spain, they went the old vegan way.
What all of this tells us about us? We didn’t have over the millennia of living in Ice Age northern climate to adapt to a diet rich in meat to some extent. We evolved in Africa from plan based vegan lineage of 60 million years. Modern humans first left Africa 100,000 years ago in a series of slow-paced migration waves and arrived in southern Europe around 80,000-90,000 years ago.
Therefore, what is the real paleo diet?
Passages selected from a book: “Go Vegan? Review of Science: Part 1” [Milos Pokimica]