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
On the 23rd of January 1995, a team of palaeontologists discovered a fragment of fossil jaw lying on the gravel desert of northern Chad. The fossil could not be accurately dated, nevertheless stratigraphic layers nearby suggested it could be around 3.5 million years of age. Back then, the site of Koro Toro was on the edge of a 3 million square kilometre Lake called Megachad. The fossil, now codenamed KT 12/H1 consisted of the front portion of the jaw with a number of teeth still in place. By using Isotopic analysis the diet of the hominin shortly before it died, can be determined. The fossil showed a preference for C4 plants, including sedges and grasses, suggesting that the area around Koro Toro was predominantly grassland. Comparing the fossil to other hominins, the features were considered very different compared to Australopithecus afarensis, 2,500 km away in Ethiopia and Kenya. The French team, led by Michel Brunet, concluded the fossil was part of a new species of Australopithecus – Australopithecus bahrelghazali. This caused a bit of a stir in the palaeoanthropological community, but progressively began to die down. The lack of fossil finds in Chad thereafter contributed to the rate at which the palaeoanthropological community forgot about the fossil, that was, until 2001. Given the same variety of animals can be found in both Ethiopia and Chad, it is not a stretch to imagine australopithecines travelling between the two regions three million years ago and many palaeoanthropologists now consider the fossil, a variant of Australopithecus afarensis.
How did the fossil make palaeoanthropologists rethink their understanding human evolution? “Abel” as the fossil became to be known reminded palaeoanthropologists that human evolution could have been more complex than previously accepted. Though once you considered the features of an Australopithecus afarensis jaw and compare that to “Abel”, it is acceptable to attach it to the Ethiopian hominin. The differences are subtle. It is worth reminding here however that the use of species names don’t tell us much about the hominins palaeobiology, are primarily to put, order to our understanding of evolution and are a useful means of scientific communication. Palaeoanthropology has had a long history of naming new species, when later we realize we were too optimistic. In the sense, that we forget how useless this venture is. More is learned from the fossils, about a hominins diet, locomotion patterns and physical characteristics than what species it belongs too. Thankfully, science is less focused on this and we are now learning much more about the hominin and the ecosystem it was once a part of. The second way in which “Abel” got us thinking, was via the surprise geographic location. Up until that time, any fossil finds made on the continent of Africa were made exclusively in eastern and southern Africa. “Abel”, reminded us that hominins were not just restricted to those regions and likely could be found all over Africa. Exciting though this prospect was, it could not solve the problem of preservation in areas where fossils cannot survive, in the hostile environments of the Sahel.