A new study of Neanderthal remains reveals that they cooked and ate plants and vegetables. (photo, from bbcimg.co.uk)
Grains of cooked plant material were found in their teeth by researchers in the US.
The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to confirm that the Neanderthal diet was not only about meat, but was more sophisticated.
So far some circumstantial evidence backed the popular image of Neanderthals as being great meat eaters, and chemical analysis of their bones suggested they ate little or no vegetables.
Some therefore explained their disappearance as a consequence of the decline of large animals like mammoths because of an Ice Age, because Neanderthals were relying on meat.
However, direct evidence found during a new analysis of Neanderthals remains from across the world contradicts the chemical studies, as researchers found fossilised grains of vegetable material in their teeth and some of it was cooked.
Professor Alison Brooks, from George Washington University, told BBC News: “We have found pollen grains in Neanderthal sites before but you never know whether they were eating the plant or sleeping on them or what.
“But here we have a case where a little bit of the plant is in the mouth so we know that the Neanderthals were consuming the food.”
When asked why the chemical studies on Neanderthal bones have been wide of the mark, Professor Brooks said it came from the interpretation of the results : “We’ve tended to assume that if you have a very high value for protein in the diet that must come from meat. But… it’s possible that some of the protein in their diet was coming from plants.”
According to this study, Neanderthals were not brutish savages, but they were more like us than we imagined.