More light shed on use of plants by Homo neanderthalensis

The ecology of Neanderthals is a pressing question in the study of hominin evolution. Diet appears to have played a prominent role in their adaptation to Eurasia. Based on isotope and zooarchaeological studies, Neanderthal diet has been reconstructed as heavily meat-based and generally similar across different environments. This image persists, despite recent studies suggesting more plant use and more variation. However, we have only a fragmentary picture of their dietary ecology, and how it may have varied among habitats, because we lack broad and environmentally representative information about their use of plants and other foods. To address the problem, we examined the plant microremains in Neanderthal dental calculus from five archaeological sites representing a variety of environments from the northern Balkans, and the western, central and eastern Mediterranean. The recovered microremains revealed the consumption of a variety of non-animal foods, including starchy plants. Using a modeling approach, we explored the relationships among microremains and environment, while controlling for chronology. In the process, we compared the effectiveness of various diversity metrics and their shortcomings for studying microbotanical remains, which are often morphologically redundant for identification. We developed Minimum Botanical Units as a new way of estimating how many plant types or parts are present in a microbotanical sample. In contrast to some previous work, we found no evidence that plant use is confined to the southern-most areas of Neanderthal distribution. Although interpreting the eco-geographic variation is limited by the incomplete preservation of dietary micro remains, it is clear that plant exploitation was a widespread and deeply rooted Neanderthal subsistence strategy, even if they were predominately game hunters. Given the limited dietary variation across Neanderthal range in time and space in both plant and animal food exploitation, we argue that vegetal consumption was a feature of a generally static dietary niche.

Dental calculus indicates widespread plant use within the stable Neanderthal dietary niche

Robert C. Power, Domingo C. Salazar-García, Mauro Rubini, Andrea Darlas, Katerina Harvati, Michael Walker, Jean-Jacques Hublin, Amanda G.Henry

DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2018.02.009

Homo neanderthalensis – A misunderstood species

THE SCIENCE OF PALAEOANTHROPOLOGY IS AN EVER-CHANGING FIELD WITH ADVANCES IN TECHNOLOGY AND THE DISCOVERY OF FRESH EVIDENCE ALLOWING INTERPRETATIONAL CHANGE.

The evolution in our understanding of the lifestyle of Homo neanderthalensis is one case in point. In the late 19th century, the impression of this hominin was indelibly cemented into the minds of scientists and the general public by the interpretation of the La Chapelle aux Saints skeleton.

Found in 1908, the old man of La Chapelle was found with extensive osteoarthritis and an edentulous jaw. These pathologies were interpreted as key characteristics of the hominin species Homo neanderthalensis and so in 1911, Marcellin Boule sketched a reconstruction of the hominin that would prove hard to ignore or forget. It was until the end of the 20th century that scientists re-assessed their impression of this hominin.

The process of humanising this species came with a re-examination of the La Chapelle material and new hominin discoveries throughout the 20th century. The dawn of archaeogenetic research finally showed that we shared a common ancestor with Homo neanderthalensis in the Middle Pleistocene.

Today we now know that at least in the Levant, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens interbred, which has raised further questions about how prevalent this interbreeding phases were. Many palaeoanthropologists no longer use “Homo neanderthalensis” in their academic papers, partially due to the ridiculous length of the name, but also because the hominin exhibits insignificant differences to us. Today you will only see “Neandertal” for the most part.

The scientific community has finally developed a new-found respect for our human cousin, but there is a lot we simply do not know about Homo neanderthalensis. A lot of the individual skeletons that represent the species have some degree of trauma. We know this hominin lived in challenging conditions, but if we were to glimpse the entirety of the Homo neanderthalensis fossil record, would what we see now be representative of the entire species?

Simon Underdown of Oxford Brookes University thinks not. In December of 2016, the Society for the study of Human Biology conference was hosted at the University of Aarhus, Denmark and Simon had an opportunity to lay out his thoughts on the subject.

Reprint from Heritage Daily

The Famous Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska

The famous Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska:

Dr. Lewis Binford (1931 – 2011) spent 1969 living with a Nunamuit group to understand their way of life. He was particularly interested in the material culture of this group. If you can understand the biography of Nunamuit objects, maybe this could shed some light on the Mousterian Technocomplex. It was hoped that this would help him understand life for Homo neanderthalensis during the Ice Age in Europe.

The First Human Epidemic: Late Pleistocene Origin?

Current models of infectious disease in the Pleistocene tell us little about the pathogens that would have infected Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). High quality Altai Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes are revealing which regions of archaic hominin DNA have persisted in the modern human genome. A number of these regions are associated with response to infection and immunity, with a suggestion that derived Neanderthal alleles found in modern Europeans and East Asians may be associated with autoimmunity. Independent sources of DNA-based evidence allow a re-evaluation of the nature and timing of the first epidemiologic transition. The paradigm of the first epidemiologic transmission, the hypothesis that epidemic disease did not occur until the transition to agriculture, with larger, denser and more sedentary populations, has been essentially unchallenged since the 1970s. Our views of the infectious disease environment of the Pleistocene period are heavily influenced by skeletal data and studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers. New genetic data – encompassing both hosts and pathogens – has the power to transform our view of the infectious disease landscape experienced by Neanderthals in Europe, and the anatomically modern humans (AMH) with whom they came into contact. The Pleistocene hominin environment cannot be thought of as free from infectious disease. It seems likely that the first epidemiologic transition, envisaged as part of the package of the Holocene farming lifestyle, may be fundamentally different in pace or scope than has previously been suggested. This paper demonstrates how high quality genomic data sets can be used to address questions arisingfrom the ecological context that shaped the co-evolutionary relationship we share with infectious diseases. We analyse the evidence for infectious disease in Neanderthals, beginning with that of infection-related skeletal pathologies in the archaeological record, and then consider the role of infection in hominin evolution. We have synthesised current models on the chronology of emergence of notable European disease packages and analyse what implications this evidence has for the classical model of the first epidemiologic transition. Using emerging data from Neanderthal palaeogenomics and combining this with fossil and archaeological information we re-examine the impact of infectious diseases on human populations from an evolutionary context. These palaeogeneticists argue that the first epidemiologic transition in Eurasia was not as tightly tied to the onset of the Holocene as has previously been assumed. There is clear evidence to suggest that this transition began before the appearance of agriculture and occurred over a timescale of tens of thousands of years. We suggest that the epidemiological transition was not, as has been thought since the 1970s, a phenomenon of the human shift to sedentary agriculture during the Holocene but a much older and more complex process that involved at least two species of humans. The origin of resistance to infectious disease has a much deeper timeframe and is highlighted by the ingression of Neanderthal DNA into modern human lineages. The transfer of pathogens between human species may also have played a role in the extinction of the Neanderthals. Our analysis of the genomes of archaic hominins provides evidence of pathogens acting as a population-level selection pressure, causing changes in genomes that were passed on to descendants and preserved in the genomes of modern Eurasians. the analysis of ancient genomes demonstrates that human behavioural patterns (in this case a shift to agricultural subsistence) should not be used as an ecological proxy to explain shifting trends in the co-evolutionary relationship between pathogens and human populations.

This work is available on BioRxiv: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/017343

Acknowledgements: Rob Foley, Marta Lahr and the members of the Human Evolutionary Science Discussion Group at the University
of Cambridge. Funding for this research was provided by King’s College Cambridge and UCL.