Anyone who has followed British TV series featuring the survival specialist Ray Mears will be well aware of the wealth of wild foods available from plants even in cold climes: Mears is famous for persuading his camera crews to try what he eats when ‘out bush’. Surviving gatherer-hunters, such as the native people of Australia, have encyclopaedic knowledge of what is edible and how to find plant victuals, and we can surmise that such skills date back to the earliest hominins. Neanderthals have been widely regarded as being exclusive meat eaters – the Innuit of Greenland can subsist on a meat- and fish-only diet, showing that it is a perfectly wholesome strategy – but new evidence reveals that they also ate a wide variety of vegetables, and cooked them. Neanderthals suffered from plaque (calculus) and that dental biofilm preserves traces of their diet (Henry, A. G. et al. 2010. Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi/10.1073/pnas.1016868108). Teeth from the famous Neanderthal sites of Shanidar in Iraq and Spy in Belgium had substantial plaque deposits. The authors found a wide variety of starch grains and silica-bearing hard parts that are characteristic of a wide range of plants (phytoliths) embedded in the plaques. Food plants included grasses, such as wild barley and sorghum; starchy roots, such as water lily; date palm, and a wide variety of starch grains and phytoliths that proved difficult to link to specific plants. Clearly, Neanderthals were not exclusively hunters of large and small game. The exclusively hunting hypothesis arose from analysis of fossilized fecal matter preserved with Neanderthal remains in occupation sites dating to the onset of frigid conditions in Europe, and in any case only shows what their producer’s last few meals contained. We can expect a closer look at teeth of other hominins from now on, as mineralized plaque is almost as indestructible as teeth themselves.
Neanderthals definitely did hunt, and evidence is that they were able regularly to bring down enormous beasts such as elephants and rhinoceroses. The question is, did they have to chase their prey animals so that they weakened through heat exhaustion before the kill, as in the case of the San hunters of SW Africa? To do that they would have had to be endurance runners. Comparing their ankle bones with those of modern humans suggests they were not very athletic in this way. (Raichlen, S.A. et al. 2011. Calcaneus length determines running economy: Implications for endurance running performance in modern humans and Neandertals. Journal of Human Evolution, v. 60, p. 299-308). Running well and keeping it up over long distances depends to a large extent on the efficiency of the Achilles tendon, the largest in the whole body: it literally puts a ‘spring in the step’ and couples muscle power to the role of feet in running. The calcaneus bone in the ankle provides leverage from the elastic storage of power in the Achilles, so its length is a guide to running efficiency. Neanderthals had a longer calcaneus than modern humans and probably had to spend considerably more muscular energy in keeping up with prey; they would have tired more quickly. The authors put this down to an evolutionary adaptation in cold climes to the lesser chance of prey animals succumbing to heat exhaustion. That would also perhaps explain evidence from other parts of Neanderthal skeletons for severe injuries, probably caused during hunting. They probably used ambush techniques and close-quarters stabbing with spears; a very risky strategy with unexhausted big game.
Interestingly, close on the heels of the Neanderthal Achilles tendon work a newly discovered foot bone of Australopithecus afarensis (Ward, C.V. et al. 2011. Complete fourth metatarsal and arches in the foot of Australopithecus afarensis. Science, v. 331, p. 750-753) shows that, like us, it had arches whereas modern apes do not. This seems to settle a lengthy debate about how australopithecines walked – they are long acknowledged to have been at least part bipedal. The 4th metatarsal is crucial: in apes its shape gives the flexibility needed to negotiate and grip branches, whilst in Homo sp. it endows the foot with the rigidity and stability to balance, absorb shock and use the toes efficiently in walking. This is pretty fundamental stuff en route to ‘proper’ humans, yet skull morphology dominates discussion of hominin anatomical relationships: the earliest tools (~3.4 Ma; see Another big surprise in EPN of September 2010) are a million years older than the earliest human, H. habilis. But they overlap in age with and occur in the same area as Australopithecus afarensis. So, should these beings actually be renamed H. afarensis?
Tantalising glimpses suggesting that Neanderthals were not brutes, such as possible shell jewellery, use of pigments and scattering of flowers at burials, has been accumulating for years. The latest has been unearthed from a cave in the north of Italy, in association with Levallois tools that are distinctive of Neanderthals (Peresani, M. et al. 2011. Late Neandertals and the intentional removal of feathers as evidenced from bird bone taphonomy at Fumane Cave 44 ky B.P., Italy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1016212108). Wing bones of vultures, eagles, owls, crows and various other birds show grooves and scratches suggesting that the long flight feathers had been carefully removed: there isn’t much meat on a wing. Since fletched arrows are believed not to have been invented until much later times, it seems pretty certain that the feathers were aimed at personal adornment, or even clothing. The evidence is very convincing and so helps confirm earlier suspicions of feather-use from wing bones found at a variety of Neanderthal sites. Some hollow bird bones are also suspected of having been used as whistles. Given the recent genetic evidence of their sexual interaction with anatomically modern humans, gradual build-up of signs of a rich cultural life make the Neanderthals significantly more attractive than the famous view of geneticist Steve Jones in 1994 that ‘If you met an unwashed Cro Magnon dressed in a business suit on the Underground, you would probably change seats. If you met a similarly garbed Neanderthal, you would undoubtedly change trains’.