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29 September 2008
Neanderthals had a broad diet

Neanderthals clubbed seals and ate dolphins and other seafood to survive in what was thought to be their last holdout before they were driven to extinction. The evidence that they had more sophisticated tastes than their caveman image, dining on seafood, suggests comes from Gibraltar, from Vanguard Cave and Gorham's Cave, where the last group ended up some 26,000 years ago.
     An analysis of remains in Gorham's and Vanguard Caves provides evidence the Neanderthals ate molluscs (mussels), seal, dolphin, and fish over some 50,000 years. The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Prof Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum, working with Prof Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Caves Project, and colleagues.
     "Recent work on Neanderthals and the isotope signatures in their bones suggested they were heavily dependent on meat from land animals such as horse and deer, whereas early modern humans had a much broader diet," explained Prof Stringer. "Now we have evidence that along the Mediterranean coast they also exploited marine foods, in a similar way to modern humans.'
     Neanderthals ate marine mammals such as the monk seal (Monachus monachus) and dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), and probably also fish such as sea bream. Remains of shellfish such the mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis) were also discovered. As for oysters, "not as far as we know, but it is possible," said Prof Stringer. "The seal bones we found have clear cut marks and peeling, from Neanderthals bending and ripping them from the body to remove meat and marrow. The mussel shells had been warmed on a fire to open them," said Prof Stringer. "Since we have recurrent evidence from several excavated levels over 30,000 years old in the two Gibraltar sites, we can say that eating seafood was not a rare behaviour for Neanderthals.
     The caves also contain hearths and flint stone tools, as well as butchered land mammals such as ibex (Capra ibex), red deer (Cervus elaphus), wild boar (Sus scrofa), bear (Ursus arctos) and rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Given the diverse diet, "it may therefore be no coincidence that they survived longest in this part of the world," said Prof Finlayson.
     The two leading theories of why Neanderthals were wiped out was that our ancestors outcompeted them for resources or exterminated them. "There is a third which I advocate, which is that climate and chance events fragmented the Neanderthals over a long period - in other words we had nothing at all to do with it," said Prof Finlayson.

Source: Telegraph.co.uk (22 September 2008)

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