Bitter root plant material found on teeth of Neanderthals suggests their complex diet may have included the stomach contents of hunted animals.
A 2012 study, published in the journal Naturwissenschaften, suggested that the presence of bitter and nutritionally-poor chamomile and yarrow residue on the plaque of 50,000-year-old Neanderthal teeth hints at plants being consumed for medicinal purposes.
But anthropologists reporting in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews have put forward a different theory. They suggest instead that the plant compounds could be from the part-digested stomach contents of hunted animals.
This is a practice still carried out by many cultures, including Australian Aborigines, who eat the stomach contents of kangaroo, and Greenland Inuit who consume the stomachs of reindeer as a delicacy.
Drawing parallels with these cultures, the team looked back at the original plaque research and determined that the plant material could well have come from eating animal stomachs.
Neanderthals have long been thought of as pure big game hunters, largely ignoring vegetables and small game, a factor which, it is argued, could have led to their extinction. But new evidence from tooth plaque and other dietary analyses shows they did eat vegetation, including some types that required complex preparation.
“Consuming yarrow and chamomile could have been both for medicine and nutrition, in different times and places, but that either reason suggests Neanderthals had a more diverse diet and better understanding of food in their environment,” said first author Dr Laura Buck from Natural History Museum in London, UK.
“It shows a level of dietary complexity not always appreciated before.”
“While some modern cultures consume contents of animal stomachs for ritual purposes, and the possibility of ritual behavior has been suggested for other Neanderthal finds,” said Dr Chris Stringer, also from Natural History Museum in London.
He said this is not indicated in their research and that nutrition is a simpler explanation.
“The practice of eating the stomach contents of prey could be a behavior that goes right back to the earliest humans. Having gone to the time and trouble of securing the carcass of a large herbivore, why would our ancestors have wasted such a source of nutrition?” Dr Stringer added.
Bibliographic information: Laura T. Buck and Chris B. Stringer. Having the stomach for it: a contribution to Neanderthal diets? Quaternary Science Reviews, published September 29, 2013; doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.09.003