How Neandertals Lived, Hunted, and Ate

This Discovery Channel series “Neanderthal” presents a wonderful re-enactment of how Neandertals lived in small groups, how they hunted together, and how they ate.

I was especially taken by how much we know about the way they used tools to butcher meat, scraped animal hides (by holding the hides in their teeth and face as a tool to spread the stress around the skull) for use in making clothing (shown in Part 1).

It’s amazing that we know so much about these ancient peoples — how strong they were, how intelligent, how adaptive, as said in the documentary.

The scientific techniques mentioned that lend to our understanding of Neandertals are studies on fossilized feces, worn-out teeth from scraping animal hides, and bone fractures that reveal injuries that led to illness or death.

New Neandertal Study

I wonder what changes will have to be realized to this documentary in light of new research from the Journal of Human Evolution. The linked article reports that new findings that Neandertals may have hunted in a manner more modern than ever thought beforehand.

Kate Britton and her team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, make these conclusions based on analysis of reindeer teeth strontium isotopes.

Strontium is an alkaline earth metal that is taken up into bones and teeth. The amount of strontium can shed light on how much food and water was consumed by the reindeer and humans, then also provides clues to what soil and rocks were about, suggesting whether or not the reindeer “ate and drank always in the same area, or if they moved around.”

The reindeer’s isotopes reveal that they were hunted close to a specific site, so it lends reason to the idea that Neandertals were “sophisticated” enough to “plan” stays around areas at certain times of the year (spring/autumn) based on reindeer migration patterns.

To think that Neandertals hunted like modern human groups is astounding, as it fosters more thought into what really happened that caused them to die out — was it because of climate change, lack of food, the appearance of humans in Europe?

Study reference: Britton, K., et al., Strontium isotope evidence for migration in late Pleistocene Rangifer: Implications for Neanderthal hunting strategies at the Middle Palaeolithic site of Jonzac, France, Journal of Human Evolution (2011), doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2011.03.004

Published by David Despain, MS, CFS

David is a science and health writer living on Long Island, New York. He's written for a variety of publications including Scientific American, Outside Online, the American Society for Nutrition's (ASN) Nutrition Notes Daily, and Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Food Technology magazine and Live! blog. He's also covered new findings reported at scientific meetings including Experimental Biology, AAAS, AOCS, CASW, Sigma Xi, IFT, and others on his personal blog "Evolving Health." David is also an active member of organizations including the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Society for Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the National Audubon Society. David has a master's degree in human nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, and a bachelor's degree in English from University of Illinois at Springfield. He also earned his Certified Food Scientist credential from the Institute of Food Technologists.

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