Red Meat-Eating Neanderthals May Have Also Been Fish Eaters

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Scientists have theorized that the reason Homo sapiens were able to out-compete Neanderthals was because they embraced a more diverse diet. However, new evidence being presented by a group of European scientists indicates that Neanderthal menus may have been more diverse than previously thought.

According to a study published recently in the journal Quaternary International, salmon bones found in a cave in the Caucasus Mountains were left there by Neanderthals – meaning our prehistoric competition enjoyed fish as a part of their diet.

A prevailing theory posits that Neanderthals stuck to a strict diet of mostly large herbivorous mammals, such as woolly mammoths and wild bison. Meanwhile, our ancestors were said to have been better equipped to a changing ecosystem by incorporating a more diverse range of food into their diets.

The new study is based on animal bones found in caves occupied by these two types of prehistoric hominids. It would be easy to automatically attribute the salmon remains to Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, but scientists needed to exclude other large predators, such as bears or cave lions, which would have lived in the area at the same time.

In a cave on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, scientists discovered bone fragments of large salmon that were most likely caught as they migrated from marine waters to their freshwater spawning places. The fishy remains were found in the Middle Palaeolithic archaeological layers, dated to between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago. Study researchers said they suspect Neanderthals left the remains, but remains of Asiatic cave bears (Ursus kudarensis) and cave lions (Panthera spelaea) were also found in the cave and could have preyed on the large meaty fish.

To determine who the salmon predators were, the bear and lion remains were evaluated using carbon, nitrogen and sulfur isotopes found in bone collagen; the isotopic signatures were compared between predators and their potential prey.

The comparison revealed that salmon was neither eaten by the cave bears, which were purely vegetarian, nor cave lions.

“This study provides indirect support to the idea that Middle Palaeolithic Hominins, probably Neandertals, were able to consume fish when it was available, and that therefore, the prey choice of Neandertals and modern humans was not fundamentally different,” said study author Hervé Bocherens, a biogeologist at Universität Tübingen, in Germany.

Bocherens said more than diet differences caused the demise of the Neanderthals.

Neanderthals appear to be gaining respect from the scientific community by leaps and bounds as a study published in August indicated that groups of the prehistoric humanoids had unique cultural differences. Based on stone tool differences, researchers from the University of Southampton asserted that a more complex Neanderthal culture existed than what experts had previously thought.

“In Germany and France there appears to be two separate handaxe traditions, with clear boundaries, indicating completely separate, independent developments,” said study author Karen Rubens. “The transition zone in Belgium and Northern France indicates contact between the different groups of Neanderthals, which is generally difficult to identify but has been much talked about, especially in relation to later contacts with groups of modern humans.”