Plant foods and the dietary ecology of Neanderthals and early modern humans

Amanda G. Henry ,  Alison S. Brooks , Dolores R. Piperno


Journal of Human Evolution


One of the most important challenges in anthropology is understanding the disappearance of Neanderthals. Previous research suggests that Neanderthals had a narrower diet than early modern humans, in part because they lacked various social and technological advances that lead to greater dietary variety, such as a sexual division of labor and the use of complex projectile weapons. The wider diet of early modern humans would have provided more calories and nutrients, increasing fertility, decreasing mortality and supporting large population sizes, allowing them to out-compete Neanderthals. However, this model for Neanderthal dietary behavior is based on analysis of animal remains, stable isotopes, and other methods that provide evidence only of animal food in the diet. This model does not take into account the potential role of plant food. Here we present results from the first broad comparison of plant foods in the diets of Neanderthals and early modern humans from several populations in Europe, the Near East, and Africa. Our data comes from the analysis of plant microremains (starch grains and phytoliths) in dental calculus and on stone tools. Our results suggest that both species consumed a similarly wide array of plant foods, including foods that are often considered low-ranked, like underground storage organs and grass seeds. Plants were consumed across the entire range of individuals and sites we examined, and none of the expected predictors of variation (species, geographic region, or associated stone tool technology) had a strong influence on the number of plant species consumed. Our data suggest that Neanderthal dietary ecology was more complex than previously thought. This implies that the relationship between Neanderthal technology, social behavior, and food acquisition strategies must be better explored.