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14/03/2016 - Neanderthals: 20 Percent Vegetarian

Tübingen, 03/11/2016. Scientists from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP) in Tübingen have studied the Neanderthals’ diet. Based on the isotope composition in the collagen from the prehistoric humans’ bones, they were able to show that, while the Neanderthals’ diet consisted primarily of large plant eaters such at mammoths and rhinoceroses, it also included vegetarian food. The associated studies were recently published in the scientific journals “Journal of Human Evolution” and “Quaternary International.”

The collagen from the Neanderthals’ bones offers clues to their diet.
The collagen from the Neanderthals’ bones offers
clues to their diet. © Bocherens

 The paleo-diet is one of the new trends among nutrition-conscious people – but what exactly did the meal plan of our extinct ancestors include? “We have taken a detailed look at the Neanderthals’ diet,” explains Professor Dr. Hervé Bocherens of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen, and he continues, “In the process, we were able to determine that the extinct relatives of today’s humans primarily fed on large herbivorous mammals such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses.”

The two excavation sites in Belgium that were examined offered the international team of scientists led by the biogeologist from Tübingen a vast array of 45,000 to 40,000 year-old bones of mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, wild horses, reindeer, European bison, cave hyenas, bears and lions as well as the remains of wolves. The immediate vicinity also revealed the bones of several Neanderthals. Based on isotope studies of the collagen in the bones, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the Neanderthals’ diet differed markedly from that of other predatory animals. Collagen is an essential organic component of the connective tissue in bones, teeth, cartilage, tendons, ligaments and the skin.

The various hunters and their prey animals. © Bocherens
The various hunters and their prey animals.
© Bocherens

“Previously, it was assumed that the Neanderthals utilized the same food sources as their animal neighbors,” explains Bocherens, and he adds, “However, our results show that all predators occupy a very specific niche, preferring smaller prey as a rule, such as reindeer, wild horses or steppe bison, while the Neanderthals primarily specialized on the large plant-eaters such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses.”

But our extinct relatives did not solely thrive on meat: Studies of the isotope composition of individual amino acids in the collagen offer proof that plant matter constituted approximately 20 percent of their diet. In scientific circles, this evolution-biologically relevant question has been discussed intensively for decades, albeit without leading to any tangible results.

“In this study, we were able for the first time to quantitatively determine the proportion of vegetarian food in the diet of the late Neanderthals. Similar results were found for more recent Stone Age humans,” adds Bocherens.

Among others, the scientists from Tübingen hope that their studies will lead to a clearer understanding of what caused the Neanderthals’ extinction around 40,000 years ago. “We are accumulating more and more evidence that diet was not a decisive factor in why the Neanderthals had to make room for modern humans,” says Bocherens in summary.

Contact
Prof. Dr. Hervé Bocherens
Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP)
Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen
Phone 07071- 29-76988

Judith Jördens
Press Office
Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung
Phone 069- 7542 1434

Publications
Naito, Y.I., Chikaraishi, Y., Drucker, D.G., Ohkouchi, N., Semal, P., Wißing, C., Bocherens, H., in press. Ecological niche of Neanderthals from Spy Cave revealed by nitrogen isotopes of individual amino acids in collagen. Journal of Human Evolution
Wißing, C., Rougier, H., Crevecoeur, I., Germonpré, M., Naito Y.I., Semal, P., Bocherens, H., in press. Isotopic evidence for dietary ecology of Neanderthals in North-Western Europe. Quaternary International 10.1016/j.quaint.2015.09.091

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To study and understand nature with its limitless diversity of living creatures and to preserve and manage it in a sustainable fashion as the basis of life for future generations – this has been the goal of the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society) for almost 200 years. This integrative “geobiodiversity research” and the dissemination of research and science are among Senckenberg’s main tasks. Three nature museums in Frankfurt, Görlitz and Dresden display the diversity of life and the earth’s development over millions of years. The Senckenberg Nature Research Society is a member of the Leibniz Association. The Senckenberg Nature Museum in Frankfurt am Main is supported by the City of Frankfurt am Main as well as numerous other partners. Additional information can be found at www.senckenberg.de.

2016 is the Leibniz year. On the occasion of the 370th birthday and the 300-year death anniversary of polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (*7/1/1646 in Leipzig, † 11/14/1716 in Hanover), the Leibniz Association is organizing an extensive topical year. Under the title “The best of all possible worlds” – a Leibniz quote – it brings into focus the diversity and timeliness of the subject matter currently studied by the scientists at the 88 Leibniz institutions across the Federal Republic of Germany.  www.bestewelten.de

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Dr. Sören Dürr
Tel.: 069 7542-1580

Alexandra Donecker
Tel.: 069 7542-1561
Mobil: 0152-0923 1133

Judith Jördens
Tel.: 069 7542-1434
Mobil: 0172-5842340

Email: pressestelle@senckenberg.de

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