How Neanderthals cooked their food

But the Neanderthals were also capable of harvesting and processing plant foods. In a study published in the US journal PNAS, calculus was removed from the teeth of three Neanderthal individuals: Shanidar III from Shanidar Cave, Iraq and Spy I and Spy II from Spy Cave, Belgium. Shanidar III yielded a large number starch grains, some of which were identified as originating from the Triticeae tribe of grasses, which includes the wild relatives of wheat, barley and rye. Others were from legumes. Importantly, many of the grains had been cooked. Although less numerous than the starch grains, a number of phytoliths were also recovered. These are rigid microscopic bodies, composed of silica, that occur in many plants and serve a number of purposes, including lending the plant structural rigidity and making it distasteful to predators. The bulk of the phytoliths recovered from Shanidar III originated from date palms. Starch grains were also recovered from the two Spy Cave Neanderthals. Some were found to be from tubers, possibly of water lilies. Others were from grass seeds, possibly sorghum.

Although neither site has yielded evidence of stone artefacts specialized for use as grinding implements, or of storage features, there is clear evidence that at both sites Neanderthals were employing preparation techniques which increased the edibility and nutritional quality of plant foods, including husking and cooking of seeds. Date palms have different harvest seasons to barley and legumes, suggesting that the Shanidar Neanderthals practiced seasonal rounds of collecting and scheduled returns to harvest areas.

Anthropologists have long been interested in the timing of two major hominin dietary adaptations; the cooking of plant foods and an expansion in dietary breadth or “broad spectrum revolution”. This led to the incorporation of a diversity of plant foods such as grass and other seeds that are nutritionally rich but relatively costly to exploit. That the Neanderthals mastered both adaptations in two widely-separated climates – Mediterranean and northern oceanic – is further proof of their sophistication.

Henry, A., Brooks, A., & Piperno, D. (2010). Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). PNAS , Early Edition, 1-6.


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author