Neandertals: not all hypercarnivores

Razib points to a story about a human origins symposium at Harvard – the same one where the Neandertal genome was discussed. This story includes a review of Noreen Tuross’ work on the isotopic signature of Shanidar Neandertals:

Evidence from Neanderthal bones collected from the Shanidar cave in Northern Iraq decades ago and analyzed recently by Tuross indicate that at least that particular Neanderthal was not a heavy carnivore. Neanderthals, she suggested, had a varied diet that included meat, but that was not solely or even largely made up of it. One possible alternative food was found in abundance in the cave, she said: land snails.
This was not a heavy meat-eater, Tuross said. So what else can they be eating? I think the answer is escargot.

My readers won’t be surprised by the fact that Neandertals may not all have been hyper-carnivorous. Last year, I mentioned some of the other factors that influence nitrogen-15 levels, including weight loss, lactation, and marine animal consumption in addition to large herbivores. I reviewed the stable isotope work on French Neandertals three years ago.

With respect to the current story, I’ll be very interested to see the publication when it comes out. We already know that Levantine Neandertals were using plant resources and eating some plant foods. Almost certainly they were doing so more than the Neandertals of northern Europe – especially seasonally – but we will have to wait and see just how different their diets would have been on average. The observation of dietary flexibility in Neandertals would be expected – to the extent that European Neandertals had to pursue high-risk foraging strategies, other Neandertals should have focused on less risky resources.

But flexibilty and cultural variability in foraging behavior both tend to make them look a lot more human. And they emphasize that the Neandertal morphological pattern was not adapted to a perfectly uniform environment across its range. Maybe we can pay some more attention to variability now.