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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Science of the Week

In the land before Colgate, teeth got grody. Neanderthals died with their last meals lodged between their molars. Today, scientists are using those preserved food bits to analyze the diet and foraging behavior of our prehistoric cousins.

Researchers at George Washington University looked at 36,000 to 44,000-year-old samples from Iraq and Belgium. Neanderthals have a reputation as spear-wielding carnivores, but the study showed that they also munched on dates, legumes and barley.

“Overall, these data suggest that Neanderthals were capable of complex food-gathering behaviors that included both hunting of large game animals and the harvesting and processing of plant foods,” wrote anthropologist Amanda Henry in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One theory for why Neanderthals were replaced by modern Homo sapiens was that humans were better at finding and preparing food. But this new study contradicts that idea. Not only did Neanderthals have a varied diet, they could cook. By looking at microstructures in the grains, the researchers discovered that the barley had been baked or boiled, an important detail because cooking food helps the digestive system extract nutrients.

In his book Catching Fire, primatologist Richard Wrangham wrote that cooking made the evolution of modern humans possible.

“The transformative moment that gave rise to the genus Homo, one of the greatest transitions in the history of life, stemmed from the control of fire and the advent of cooked meals,” Wrangham wrote.

We’ve got a lot in common with the Neanderthal side of the family tree, but at least we use mouthwash.

– Madeline McCurry-Schmidt


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