During the past couple of years, new evidence has really shifted our view of Neandertal diet. Even three years ago, it was not unusual to hear Neandertals described as "hypercarnivores", more heavily reliant upon meat than any living hunter-gatherers, except possibly for Inuit who live on seal meat and whale blubber.
The idea that Neandertals had diets with a very high fraction of meat -- maybe as high as 90-95% meat -- came from analyses of stable isotopes. I reviewed some of the stable isotope work on Neandertal diet in 2005 - "Neandertals noshed on mammoth meat?", "Neandertals: gone fishin' or not?". Here at the beginning of 2013, stable isotopes are well worth another review here on the blog.
The extreme view of Neandertals as hypercarnivores has been softened by new evidence from several sources. Phytoliths and starch grains from Neandertal dental calculus have shown a wide variety of plants were consumed by Neandertals at least occasionally. Meanwhile, the starch grains have not only documented consumption of grains and tubers, but have also shown that Neandertals were cooking those plant foods. I wrote about the phytolith and starch granule discoveries by Amanda Henry and colleagues  last year ("Tartar control and Neandertal plant use").
A new article by John Speth in Before Farming reconsiders the archaeological record of game exploitation by Neandertals and early modern humans in the Near East . Speth begins with a short review of how Neandertals gradually came to be known as hypercarnivores -- in spite of many archaeologists' insistence that they must have been incompetent in various ways. After some discussion of the limits of the archaeological record, he notes that the zooarchaeological record doesn't tell us about the quantitative contribution of meat to the diet. In short:
Lots of gazelle bones doesn’t necessarily mean lots of gazelle meat per capita per day.
He illustrates this point with a historical case, the excavation of trash heaps from Fort Ligonier, Pennsylvania, occupied by the British during the French and Indian War. There, the total meat yield represented by animal bones was estimated at only 4,000 pounds, a tiny fraction of the meat ration known to have been issued to soldiers. The point of the example is that many biases prevent the accumulation and discovery of animal bone, even in historic contexts. The Paleolithic record of faunal exploitation can represent only the merest fraction of animal carcasses that were actually handled or consumed by ancient peoples. Biases guarantee that this record will be unrepresentative in ways that we may be poorly able to assess.
Speth addresses the idea that Middle Pleistocene people consumed a very high fraction of meat by emphasizing that a diet of lean meat is unsustainable at such a level. If Neandertals' animal consumption was as high as Inuit peoples, then they must have been eating a high fraction of fat somehow:
The Inuit or Eskimos provide a classic example of peoples whose traditional sustenance was provided almost entirely by meat, the diet commonly envisioned for cold-climate Neanderthals. But when looked at quantitatively, Inuit diet was actually composed primarily of fat, not lean meat, with the protein contribution seldom surpassing about 35 per cent of their calories, and usually lower, closer to 25 per cent. Pemmican, the traditional mainstay of Native Americans and First Nation peoples (‘Indians’) inhabiting the Great Plains of mid-continental North America, was a mixture of rendered fat and dried, pulverized lean meat, the mix carefully prepared so that the pro- tein component did not exceed 25–30 per cent of total energy (eg, Stefansson 1956; Speth 2010). In habitats where plant foods are neither abundant nor available for long periods of the year, and particularly for foragers in such habitats who do not store foods, fat becomes the principal non-protein macronutrient for much of the year. Foragers in the northern latitudes did obtain some carbohydrates by consuming fermented stomach contents of reindeer and ptarmigan, and sometimes inner bark (cambium), as well as small quantities of berries during the summer months (Eidlitz 1969; Gottesfeld 1992; Östlund et al 2009; Sandgathe & Hayden 2003; Zackrisson et al 2000). Until fairly recently, stomach contents were actually considered a delicacy (often referred to as ‘Eskimo ice cream’), not an emergency resource resorted to only when all else failed (Starks 2007; Speth 2010). Unfortunately, we lack quantitative data on the actual amounts that were consumed, how those amounts varied over the year, and whether men and women had comparable access. Did Neanderthals also con- sume fermented stomach contents? If so, would such a practice have had any detectable impact on their unusually high nitrogen isotope values?
Through the middle of the article, Speth provides a detailed account of the biases due to taphonomy and ancient behavior that apply to faunal collections in Middle Paleolithic contexts. Many of these factors, such as biases in transport of different size animals, are well-known to archaeologists, but Speth's review will be useful for those who may not have studied the issue. The value of this part of the article is in its application of prey transport and landscape use to the unique geography of the Near East. Here, Middle Paleolithic peoples hunted amid water scarcity and temperature regimes that were very different from those found in Southwestern Europe. Yet by several indicators, the Middle Paleolithic population in both areas was relatively dense and successful.
Speth reminds us that ancient hunters were active agents who made choices in their hunting strategies. Some of those choices may have been influenced by landscape use and prey abundance, but others are less easily predictable in such terms:
The Hadza, one of the most thoroughly documented modern foraging populations, offer another interesting example. Wildebeest are one of the most abundant prey available to Hadza hunters, but they commonly avoid wildebeest in favour of zebras. Why? According to Hadza informants, the fat from wildebeest is hard and sticks to one’s teeth and palate,while zebra marrow and back-fat, especially the yellow subcutaneous deposits near the rump, are far more desirable (Oliver 1993:217; Selous 1907:220; Speth 2010:66–70). Were we to assume that Hadza hunters took prey in direct proportion to their availability on the landscape, our conclusions would be very wide of the mark.
Back to the problem of lean meat: Hunter-gatherers in ethnographic and historical records have used boiling to degrease bone. This allows the use of the fat from inside the cancellous structure of the bone, which is a key resource supporting the use of lean wild animal meat. Boiling or slow-cooking using heated stones has been applied by many peoples around the world, and tends to leave a very distinctive archaeological trace -- the heated rocks, lined pits dug to enclose the slow-cooking mass, all show up in the archaeology. These techniques were not used by Middle Paleolithic people, or if such people used heated rocks, they did not use them terribly extensively. Stone boiling became common only later in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe.
But Speth discusses other means of boiling, including the use of skin and bark containers. These are expedient and perishable, yet filled with water will effectively contain boiling liquid over hot coals or indirect flame. Whether such techniques were used by Neandertals remains speculative. The suggestion is latent in the identification of cooked starches within Neandertal dental calculus. If they were capable of cooking grains in moist heat, they must at least have been using bark packets or some other style of slow-cooking. The rendering of fat from bone by boiling in perishable containers would not take much additional innovation, and would have been energetically and nutritionally very advantageous.
As I was discussing this with friends a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that the combination of cooked grains and meats within an animal bladder is a recurrent feature of the cuisine of Northern Europe. Neandertal haggis.
- . 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 [Internet]. 2011;108:486–491. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1016868108
- . Middle Palaeolithic subsistence in the Near East: zooarchaeological perspectives – past, present and future. Before Farming. 2012;2012(2):1.