A joint announcement by Northern Illinois University
in DeKalb, Ill.;
Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.; and Oxford University,
Neandertal bone chemistry provides food for thought
- DE KALB, Ill.-New scientific testing resolves the long-standing
debate over whether the Neandertals were merely scavengers who
snatched the leftovers of nature's predators or were themselves
high-level carnivores with adept hunting skills.
An international team of scientists firmly concludes the latter
in a report to be published June 20 in the prestigious journal,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The report will
be posted on the PNAS Web site at www.pnas.org
on June 13.
Through bone-chemistry analyses, the team determined the Neandertals
must have feasted on meat. The Neandertal diet-which may have
included mammoths-was similar to that of other top-level carnivores
from the time period, such as wolves and lions, the researchers
"This research puts to end the argument about whether the
Neandertals were primarily scavengers," said team member
Erik Trinkaus, Ph.D., an anthropologist at Washington University
in St. Louis. "With a diet dominated by animal protein,
the Neandertals must have been effective predators. This implies
a much higher degree of social organization and behavioral complexity
than is frequently attributed to the Neandertals."
Team member Fred H. Smith, Ph.D., chairman of the Department
of Anthropology at Northern Illinois University, added: "For
several decades, archaeologists have debated the importance of
meat in the Neandertal diet, but this question never has been
answered unequivocally. Our findings provide conclusive proof
that European Neandertals were top-level carnivores who lived
on a diet of mainly hunted animal meat."
Michael P. Richards, Ph.D., of the University of Oxford, led
the team, which included Trinkaus, Smith and other researchers
at Oxford, the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the
University of Zagreb, Croatia.
The scientists analyzed a jawbone and skull bone from two Neandertals
recently dated to about 28,000 years old. The fossils were recovered
at the Vindija cave site, located about 34 miles north of the
Croatian capital of Zagreb. Researchers then compared the bone
composition with other central European animals of the same time
period, including wolves, wild cattle, mammoths, arctic fox and
By itself, archaeological evidence-in the form of remains of
animal bones and stone tools that were used for hunting-provides
only a glimpse of Neandertal diets. Some scientists have argued
that there was little evidence that the Neandertals were accomplished
- "We've known meat clearly was a part of the diet of
Neandertals, but it was impossible, from the archaeological evidence
alone, to see the actual proportion of meat in their diets,"
Smith said. "Stable-isotope analysis yields a direct measure
of human diet, since our bones record the isotope signatures
of the foods we have eaten in our lifetimes. By measuring these
isotope signatures in fossil bones, we can reconstruct aspects
of the diets of humans and animals from the past."
- The new evidence suggests the European Neandertals may have
eaten almost exclusively meat. "It's still hard for us to
know for certain, but it doesn't appear that they were getting
much in the way of nutrients from something other than meat,"
- Trinkaus added: "The isotope data-combined with archaeological
analysis of faunal remains and tools found with the Neandertal
fossils-indicate that hunting of mammals was a major element
of their subsistence. Conversely, plant foods are almost invisible
in the archeological record, making it impossible to estimate
accurately their dietary importance."
- The new findings, along with data from older samples of Neandertal
fossils in France and Belgium, indicate a pattern of European
Neandertal adaptation as carnivores, the researchers said.
- The Neandertals commonly are portrayed as prehistoric humans
of limited capabilities who were rapidly replaced and driven
to extinction by superior early modern humans, once the latter
appeared in Europe. The team's findings not only offer new information
about the European Neandertals' diet, but also about their social
behavior, including manipulation of their environment.
"There's no reason to believe Neandertals were any less
efficient exploiters of the environment than modern humans,"
- In a study last fall involving Vindija fossils, members of
the same research team documented through radiocarbon dating
that the Neandertals roamed central Europe as recently as 28,000
years ago, representing the latest date ever recorded for Neandertal
fossils. These previous findings-combined with recent evidence
of late Neandertal survival in Iberia and of Neandertal-modern
human interbreeding in Portugal, the latter of which also was
published in PNAS-indicate that the Neandertals were able to
coexist and interact successfully with early modern humans spreading
across Europe at the time.
- "The new bone-chemistry data combined with evidence
of sustained Neandertal coexistence and interbreeding with early
modern humans offer a positive picture of the Neandertals and
may make it easier for some to accept the possibility that the
Neandertals were among the ancestors of early modern humans,"
Notes to Editor:
Images of the jaw bone used in the testing, the cave at Vindija
and researchers Fred Smith and Erik Trinkaus, as well as this
release, will be posted at the Web sites: http://www.niu.edu/pubaffairs/
To request the images in j-peg format or for further assistance,
call Jennice O'Brien at NIU at 815-753-1682 or Joe Angeles at
Washington U. at 314-935-5217.
- A copy of the PNAS article may be obtained by contacting
the National Academy of Sciences News Office at 202-334-2138
Research paper authors
Michael P. Richards, Oxford University, Oxford, UK
- Paul B. Pettitt, Oxford University, Oxford, UK
- Erik Trinkaus, Washington University in St. Louis,
- Fred H. Smith, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb,
- Maja Paunovic, Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts
- Ivor Karavanic, University of Zagreb (Croatia)