Ancient Dental Calculus Reveals Neanderthal Diets

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Neanderthals ate both plants and animals, according to a study of dental calculus and other bone materials by an international research team that used stable isotope analysis and identification of plant micro-remnants.

Extinct cousins of modern human beings, Neanderthals occupied western Eurasia and traveled as far east as Uzbekistan and even the Altai Mountains of Siberia before disappearing. The study examined their diet at the eastern limit of their expansion, where they interacted with their cousins, the Denisovans.

Previous research has revealed how modern humans in western Siberia displayed high mobility. Yet there is a lack of work analyzing the behavior and subsistence of Neanderthals in eastern Siberia, which is dryer and colder than western Siberia. By studying the diets of Neanderthals, the researchers hope to understand their behavior, mobility, and adaptability.

The researchers took bone samples and dental calculus from Neanderthal remains that were between 50,000 and 60,000 years old from the site of Chagyrskaya in the Atlai Mountains in southern Siberia, just 100 km from the Denisova Cave.

Analyses of the stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes from one mandible revealed that the individual had a relatively high trophic level compared to the local food web, indicating it had consumed a large amount of animal protein from hunting large and medium-sized game.

Using optical microscopy, the researchers also identified a diverse assemblage of microscopic particles from plants preserved in the dental calculus from the same individuals as well as from others from the site. These plant microremains indicate that the inhabitants of Chagyrskaya also consumed a number of different plants.

The researchers said these results can help answer a long-standing enigma about the Altai Neanderthals. The region was tempting enough that Neanderthals colonized it at least twice, but genetic data indicates they were barely hanging on, living only in small groups that were constantly at risk of extinction.

The dietary data now indicates that this unusual habitation pattern probably was not due to a lack of adapting their diet to the local environment, the researchers said. Instead, other factors such as the climate or interaction with other hominins should be investigated in future studies, they said.

“Neanderthals were capable of having a diverse menu even in adverse climactic environments,” said Domingo C. Salazar Garcia, CIDEGENT Researcher of Excellence at the University of Valencia.

“It was really surprising that these eastern Neanderthals had broadly similar subsistence patterns to those from western Eurasia, showing the high adaptability of our cousins, and therefore suggesting that their dietary ecology was probably not a disadvantage when competing with anatomically modern humans,” Garcia said.

“These microremains provide some indication that even as Neanderthals expanded onto the vast and cold forest-steppe of central Asia they retained patterns of plant use that could have been developed in western Eurasia,” said Robert Power, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

“A better grasp of Neanderthal dietary ecology is not only the key to better understand why they disappeared, but also to how they interacted with other populations who they coexisted with, like the Denisovans,” said Bruce Viola, assistant professor with the University of Toronto Department of Anthropology.

“To really understand the diets of our ancestors and cousins, we need more studies like this one that make use of multiple different methods on the same individuals. We can finally understand both the plant and animal foods that they ate,” said Amanda G. Henry, assistant professor at the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University.

“The steppe lowlands of the Altai Mountains were suitable for the habitation of the Neanderthals 60,000 years ago,” said Natalia Rudaya, head of the PaleoData Lab of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography Siberian Branch Russian Academy of Science.

“Despite the sparse vegetation and its seasonal nature, the absence of tundra elements and relatively mild climate allowed eastern Neanderthals to keep the same food strategies as their western relatives,” Rudaya said.

The study, “Dietary Evidence from Central Asian Neanderthals: A Combined Isotope-Plant Microremain Approach at Chagyrskaya Cave (Altai, Russia),” was published by the Journal of Human Evolution.

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