Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Neanderthals gathered, cooked plant foods

Neanderthals ate their veggies
CBC News: Neanderthals weren't just meat eaters, with new research finding that the ancient near-human creatures regularly cooked and consumed a variety of plants. The discovery challenges the position of some who argue that Neanderthals were largely carnivores who ultimately became extinct in part because they were bested by early human ancestors who managed to wring more nutrition from their environment by incorporating more plants into their diet.

Researchers examined the dental calculus -- the layer of hardened plaque -- in seven fossilized teeth of Neanderthal individuals whose remains were unearthed at archaeological sites in Iraq and Belgium. What they found was a wealth of well-preserved plant microfossils. They identified dozens of starch grains from many plants, including wild grass, legumes, palm dates, roots and tubers.

They also found evidence that some of the plants had been cooked. 'There is clear evidence of cooking in the recovered starch grains, and furthermore, several of the identified plant foods would have required moderate to high levels of preparation.' the researchers wrote in a paper published... in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 'These lines of evidence indicate Neanderthals were investing their time and labour in preparing plant foods in ways that increased their edibility and nutritional quality.'

The Guardian: The last of the Neanderthals are thought to have died out around 28,000 years ago, but it is unclear what role -- if any -- modern humans played in their demise... [Dolores] Piperno's team was given permission to study the remains of three Neanderthal skeletons. One was unearthed at the Shanidar cave in Iraq and lived 46,000 years ago. The other two were recovered from the Cave of Spy in Belgium, and date to around 36,000 years ago...

They collected 73 starch grains from the Iraqi Neanderthal's teeth. Some of these belonged to barley or a close relative and appeared to have been boiled in water... Similar tests on the Belgian Neanderthals' teeth revealed traces of cooked starch that probably came from parts of water lilies that store carbohydrates. Other cooked starch grains were traced back to sorghum, a kind of grass...

The work also raises questions about whether Neanderthals organised themselves in a similar way to early hunter-gatherer groups, [Piperno] said. 'When you start routinely to exploit plants in your diet, you can arrange your settlements according to the season. In two months' time you want to be where the cereals are maturing, and later where the date palms are ready to pick... This is important in terms of your overall cognitive abilities.'

'In early human groups, women typically collected plants and turned them into food while men hunted. To us, and it is just a suggestion, this brings up the possibility that there was some sexual division of labour in the Neanderthals and that is something most people did not think existed.' Agence France-Presse: Neanderthals controlled fire much like early modern humans, PNAS said in a statement.
Image source here.