Neanderthal diet like early modern human's

23 September 2008

Neanderthal diets were more like those of early modern humans than previously thought, according to research published today.

Remains of a seal showing cut marks where Neanderthals removed meat from the bone (phalanx) discover

Remains of a seal showing cut marks where Neanderthals removed meat from the bone (phalanx) discovered in one of the Gibraltar caves

Natural History Museum scientists, working as part of the Gibraltar Caves Project, excavated and studied remains of shell fish and other marine animals such as dolphins from two caves in Gibraltar where Neanderthals once lived.

They discovered that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than their traditional caveman image would suggest. Like modern humans, they foraged in coastal habitats to find sea foods such as shellfish and vulnerable seals.

Our closest relatives
Model head of a Neanderthal man

Model head of a Neanderthal man

Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, were probably our closest relatives. Understanding more about their way of life can give us clues as to how early humans lived.

Neanderthals were humans but they were a different species from us, the Homo sapiens. They evolved in Europe and Asia while we were evolving in Africa.

Other sites in Gibraltar have revealed Neanderthal fossils and their stone tools have been found all across Europe. Neanderthals survived in Europe until less than 30,000 years ago.

Gibraltar caves
Caves of Gibraltar including Gorham's and Vanguard.

Caves of Gibraltar including Gorham's and Vanguard. They have evidence of Neanderthal occupation and a seafood diet.

The finds were uncovered in two caves called Gorham’s and Vanguard on the eastern side of Gibraltar.

The caves contain rich evidence of Neanderthal occupation covering more than 50,000 years, including hearths (area where a fireplace once existed), flint and stone tools, and butchered land mammals such as ibex, red deer, wild boar and bear.

Despite Gibraltar’s small size it is one of the richest places in the world for Neanderthal finds.

First evidence of exploiting the sea
Selection of stone tools from Gorham's cave that Neanderthals would have used

Selection of stone tools from Gorham's cave that Neanderthals would have used

Until now, we have only had clear evidence that our species exploited marine resources, but the new finds show that the Neanderthals did the same.

'We already knew that Neanderthals were heavily carnivorous from sites further north in Europe,' says Professor Chris Stringer, Museum human origins expert. 'But now we have evidence that along the Mediterranean coast they also exploited marine foods, in a similar way to modern humans.’

Intelligent cavemen
Lower jaw of a Med monk seal found in the Vanguard cave in Gibraltar

Lower jaw of a Mediterranean monk seal found in the Vanguard cave in Gibraltar

Scientists identified which species the remains belonged to, and microscopic examination of cut and bite marks on the bones could reveal aspects of Neanderthal behaviour.

More than half of the animal bones found in the Gibraltar caves belonged to young mammals. Remains were also found in different levels in the caves covering different periods of time.

‘We have found evidence that Neanderthals knew the geographic distribution and behaviour of their prey,’ says Stringer. ‘This suggests they were hunting on a seasonal basis.’

This is important because it means their diet wasn’t the result of luck, but due to thought and planning, and this provides further evidence of complex behaviour.

‘The seal bones we found have clear cut marks and peeling, from Neanderthals bending and ripping them from the body to remove meat and marrow. The mussel shells had been warmed on a fire to open them,’ says Stringer.

Cooking for bone marrow

The sites reveal that Neanderthals didn’t always cook bones for their meat, which they often ate raw, but rather to make it easier to extract the marrow from them. They also cooked plants and nuts.

'They didn’t just eat big game,' adds Stringer. 'Their diet included rabbit and baked tortoise.'

Lessons for today

These finds illuminate the early history of humans and show what problems these ancient people had to solve to survive.

'They had to be flexible and adaptable,' says Stringer. 'Even when the climate changed, and these are important lessons for today'.

Some of these finds are on display at the Natural History Museum (in Dinosaur Way) and in the Gibraltar Museum.

Neanderthal Exploitation of Marine Mammals in Gibraltar is published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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