Neanderthals

Here are a few things we know about Homo neanderthalis that are specially relevant to our understanding of life in the Palaeolithic for Homo sapiens

Sapiens may have eaten neanderthalis

Neanderthals were a sturdy species who emerged in Europe 300,000 years ago, made complex stone tools and survived several ice ages before disappearing around 30,000 years ago - just as Homo sapiens arrived in Europe from Africa. Some researchers believe Neanderthals may have failed to compete effectively with Homo sapiens for resources or were more susceptible to climate change. Others believe the neanderthal/sapiens interaction was violent and terminal for the Neanderthals. In the May 2009 Journal of Anthropological Sciences, Fernando Rozzi reports on a Neanderthal jawbone apparently butchered by modern humans. The butchery marks were similar to those left from Homo sapiens' butchery of deer carcasses. "For years people have tried to hide away from the evidence of cannibalism, but I think we have to accept it took place." [2]

Neanderthalis may have eaten sapiens

The alternative hypothesis has been proposed by Danny Vendramini, in his book Them and Us. Vendramini proposes that Eurasian Neanderthals hunted, killed and cannibalised early humans for 50,000 years in an area of the Middle East known as the Mediterranean Levant Because the two species were sexually compatible, Eurasian Neanderthals also abducted and raped human females. He says that a prolonged period of cannibalistic and sexual predation began about 100,000 years ago and that by 50,000 years ago, the human population in the Levant was reduced to as few as 50 individuals. The death toll from Neanderthal predation generated the selection pressure that transformed the tiny survivor population of early humans into modern humans. This Levantine group became the founding population of all humans living today. He argues that modern human physiology, sexuality, aggression, propensity for inter-group violence and human nature all emerged as a direct consequence of systematic long-term dietary and sexual predation by Eurasian Neanderthals.

Neanderthal diet 90% meat

The extinction of the Neanderthals could have been caused by their choosy appetites - they ate virtually nothing but meat, according to new a study. If their prey, such as bison and deer, then became scarce, they would struggle to survive.

Neanderthals were excellent hunters, but the issue that was at stake was whether they hunted every day of their lives or whether it was just a summer outing. Now new information, derived from remains found in Croatia, suggest that hunting was nearly all they did to gather food. This leads to the speculation that the more versatile diets of the early Homo sapiens allowed them to survive when Neanderthals did not.

The early humans themselves may have been better hunters than the Neanderthals, depriving them of their kills. Or the hunted animals may have been struck by disease or migrated away.

It has been very hard to assess the variety of Neanderthal diets because although animal bones are often preserved in caves, easily rotted food like vegetables, fruit and grains rarely remain. But the scientists found a way. They measured the ratios of the different types (isotopes) of carbon and nitrogen found in Neanderthal bones.

Plants and animals have contrasting isotopic ratios, so when these are eaten they leave different signatures in a Neanderthal's bones. And because the bones grow slowly, the signature represents a 10 to 20-year average of the individual's diet, not merely the last meal. They "calibrated" the analyses by comparing the Neanderthal bone ratios with those from contemporaneous animals at the top (bears) and bottom (bison) of the animal food chain.

The ratios showed that the Neanderthals were top-level predators, getting about 90% of their protein from meat. Previous research shows this sometimes included cannibalism. The rest of the protein would have come from nuts and grains.[1]

Neanderthal physique

European Neanderthals between 600,000 and 35,000 years ago seem to have been specialist big game hunters who ambushed their prey using jabbing spears, isotope ratios in their bones indicate a diet composed of 50-80 percent animal flesh; their skeletons show evidence of injury rates similar to modern rodeo riders, and they were probably the most robust and powerfully built humans of all time with muscle attachment sites significant larger then the strongest modern athletes.

Notes

1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/787918.stm dated 12 June 2000

2. From The Guardian on 17 May 2009

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Page updated 30 October 2009