by Kaye George
Do you suppose that’s what Neanderthals ate? The Paleo diet does contain lots of protein, but it also includes fresh fruits and vegetables. Neanderthals lived through some extreme cold times and wouldn’t have had ready access to fresh plants year round. The Paleo diet, though, is supposed to be what early Homo sapiens, the hunter gatherers ate. Neanderthals weren’t hunter gatherers! Here’s what I found out when I wrote DEATH IN THE TIME OF ICE.
(This article uses the alternate spelling of Neandertal—not a typo.)
Question: How do we know what the Neanderthals ate?
Answer: An analysis of the chemicals laid down in Neanderthals' teeth indicates that they ate lots of meat. In fact they were more carnivorous than wolves!
Michael Richards, now at the University of Bradford in England, and his colleagues
recently examined isotopes of carbon (13C) and nitrogen (15N) in 29,000-year-old
Neandertal bones from Vindija cave in Croatia. The relative proportions of these
isotopes in the protein part of human bone, known as collagen, directly reflect their
proportions in the protein of the individual’s diet. Thus, by comparing the isotopic
“signatures” of the Neandertal bones to those of other animals living in the same
environments, the authors were able to determine whether the Neandertals were
deriving the bulk of their protein from plants or from animals.
The analyses show that the Vindija Neandertals had 15N levels comparable to
those seen in northern carnivores such as foxes and wolves, indicating that they
obtained almost all their dietary protein from animal foods. Earlier work hinted that
inefficient foraging might have been a factor in the subsequent demise of the
Neandertals. But Richards and his collaborators argue that in order to consume as
much animal food as they apparently did, the Neandertals had to have been skilled
Scientific American, Special Edition: New Look at Human Evolution, August, 2003, p. 69