The amount of meat in their diet shows they weren't simply scavengers
Neanderthals likely were skilled hunters
WASHINGTON (Reuters) Neanderthals feasted on meat, meat and more meat, researchers said Monday in a report that adds to a growing body of evidence that they were skilled hunters and not grunting, witless cave men, as they are often portrayed.
Chemical analyses of bones found in caves in Croatia showed Neanderthals ate a diet similar to that of wolves and lions, and probably hunted woolly mammoths, the researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Our findings provide conclusive proof that European Neanderthals were top-level carnivores, who lived on a diet of mainly hunted animal meat," said Fred Smith, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Northern Illinois University.
Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said the findings will help settle the debate about how advanced the Neanderthals were.
"It is becoming clear that Neanderthals were not randomly wandering around the landscape, stumbling on an animal they could kill or a carcass they could scavenge," said Trinkaus, who worked on the study.
The researchers analyzed the 29,000-year-old bones looking for variants, or isotopes, of nitrogen. The isotopes preserved in mammal bone collagen can reveal whether an animal had been consuming primarily animals or plants during the last several years of its life.
The verdict was clear these two Neanderthals, found in Vindija Cave near the Croatian capital, Zagreb, ate a lot of meat, Trinkaus said.
"With a diet dominated by animal protein, the Neanderthals must have been effective predators," he said. "This implies a much higher degree of social organization and behavioral complexity than is frequently attributed to the Neanderthals."
Trinkaus said the new evidence adds to an evolving picture that scientists have of the Neanderthals. Just a few years ago, they were thought to be primitive offshoots of the prehuman line, who were well-adapted to cold Ice Age conditions but who died out as a species.
Anthropologists have since found that Neanderthals lived with modern humans as recently as 24,000 years ago, that they made and wore jewelry, had fairly sophisticated tools and weapons and, perhaps most controversially, may have interbred with modern Homo sapiens.
"In terms of their ability to produce art and complex burials, the differences between them and early modern humans are becoming smaller and smaller," Trinkaus said.
"There's no reason to believe Neanderthals were any less efficient exploiters of the environment than modern humans," Smith added.
Nonetheless, life for them was nasty, brutish and short.
"We see a lot of trauma, a lot of developmental lesions, a lot of low life expectancy," he said.
Trinkaus said if Neanderthals ate a lot of meat, they would have had to hunt, because they could not have survived by scavenging alone.
"The only committed scavengers are birds," he said.
"If you are walking around, the time and energy it takes to find (carcasses) is too great for what you get."
Trinkaus said the diet would have been unhealthy by today's standards, but the Neanderthals were trying to survive in a cold climate, where not a lot of plant food was available.
"If you have low life expectancy and you are very physically active, you don't worry about cholesterol," he said. "In fact, you want cholesterol. And they weren't just eating steaks off these animals they were eating everything that was edible. They were smashing up the skulls and eating brains. They were eating tongues."