June 29, 2000 Vol . 18, No. 5
By Marianne Meadahl
An international research team led by a Simon Fraser University archaeologist has found conclusive evidence that European Neanderthals were top-level meat eaters, settling a long-standing debate over how carnivorous they were.
Michael Richards, a post-doctoral research fellow in SFU's archaeology department, says the study, published June 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (and posted June 13 at (http://www.pnas.org), proves Neanderthals were not primarily scavengers but were high-level carnivores with adept hunting skills.
Archaeological evidence, in the form of remains of animal bones and stone tools used for hunting, has only provided a partial picture of Neanderthal diets, says Richards, currently at Oxford University. The other researchers are from Washington University, Northern Illinois University, the Croatian Academy of Sciences and the University of Zagreb.
"It is clear that animals were a part of Neanderthal diets, but it is impossible, from the archaeological evidence alone, to see the actual proportion of the diet that these animals made up," he explains.
The research team used evidence from bone chemistry to identify the composition of Neanderthal diets. Researchers analysed the chemical composition of a jawbone and skull bone from two Neanderthals recently dated to about 28,000 years old. The bones were recovered at the Vindija cave site, located about 34 miles north of the Croatian capital of Zagreb.
The bone composition was then compared with other central European animals of the same time period. Richards says the stable isotope composition of the Neanderthal bones, and associated animal bones, shows that within their ecosystem Neanderthals had diets similar to other top carnivores, such as wolves, hyenas and lions. Their diet consisted of hunted herbivores and may have included mammoths, wild cattle and deer.
"Stable isotope analysis provides a direct measure of human diet, and our bones record the isotope signatures of the foods we have eaten in our lifetimes," explains Richards, who will return to SFU in July. "By measuring these isotope signatures in fossil bones we can reconstruct the diets of humans and animals from the past."
The new evidence suggests the Neanderthals may have been almost exclusively meat eaters. With a diet dominated by animal protein Neanderthals must have actively hunted animals, says Richards.
"This implies that Neanderthals had a high level of social interaction and organization in order to be able to hunt these animals so successfully," he concludes.
The same research team last fall used radiocarbon dating to determine that Neanderthals, commonly portrayed as prehistoric humans of limited capabilities who were driven to extinction by superior early modern humans, roamed central Europe as recently as 28,000 years ago.
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