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31 December 2010
Dental exam finds Neanderthals ate their veggies

Researchers from George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institution have discovered evidence to debunk the theory that Neanderthals' disappearance was caused in part by a deficient diet - one that lacked variety and was overly reliant on meat. The new study, published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed the dental calculus - the layer of hardened plaque - in seven fossilised teeth of Neanderthal individuals. They found grains from plants, including a type of wild grass and traces of roots and tubers, trapped in plaque build-up.
     These latest findings, on 44,000- to 36,000-year-old Neanderthals from Iraq and Belgium, indicate Neanderthals were also eating dates, barley, legumes and possibly water lilies. Anthropologist Amanda Henry from the Center for Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology led the study.
     She and colleagues Alison Brooks and Dolores Piperno further determined that the barley had been cooked. It was either boiled or baked. Quite a few papers lately have described improved methods in making such determinations, based on the microstructure of the individual grains. "Neanderthals and early humans did not visit the dentist," said Dr. Brooks. "Therefore, the calculus or tartar remained on their teeth, preserving tiny clues to the previously unknown plant portion of their diets."
     "Overall, these data suggest that Neanderthals were capable of complex food-gathering behaviors that included both hunting of large game animals and the harvesting and processing of plant foods," wrote Henry and her team. They pointed out that dates and legumes have different harvest times, suggesting that Neanderthals "practiced seasonal rounds of collecting and scheduled returns to harvest areas."
     Some guesses can be made about what else Neanderthals ate, however, based on plant finds near their living areas - in this case at Shanidar Cave in Iraq and Spy Cave in Belgium. At these sites the scientists found evidence for walnuts, chestnuts, relatives of chicory and lettuce, and relatives of modern culinary herbs. Prior research discovered that they also had access to acorns, cattails and pistachios.
     In the past, some archaeologists argued that Neanderthals were not as food-savvy as modern humans, which could have led to their demise. This new study counters that claim, and instead strengthens the view that, as the authors wrote: "Neanderthal foraging patterns were much like those of modern humans, including small game, marine resources, plant foods, similar use of fire, some cooking, and other food processing."

Edited from AFP, Discovery News (27 December 2010), Past Horizons, The Australian (29 December 2010)

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