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Plant Foods and the Dietary Ecology of Neandertals and Modern Humans Open Access

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Neandertals are our closest fossil relatives and have left a rich archaeological and fossil record, yet many aspects of their behavior are still under debate. In particular, their dietary patterns are an object of many studies, since food acquisition is a central feature of a species' adaptive suite. Behavioral Ecology (BE) provides a method to assess and compare dietary behavior, and to suggest testable links between diet and other behaviors. BE studies of Neandertals have suggested that one of the reasons that they disappeared was that modern humans were better able to procure food resources, ate a wider variety of foods, and competed with Neandertals for prey. However, much of the research into Neandertal and modern human diets has focused on the use of animal foods. Ethnographic studies of modern foragers suggest that plant foods are important, and generally reflect women's contribution to diet. Plant microfossil research allows individual plant taxa and plant organs to be identified from residues trapped on the surface of stone tools and in the dental calculus on teeth. I used this method on 157 tools and 67 teeth from 34 individuals that represent Middle Paleolithic Neandertals and early modern humans from Middle Paleolithic, Middle Stone Age, Upper Paleolithic and Later Stone Age contexts in Europe, the Near East and Africa. I collected a reference collection of over 400 edible wild plants to compare the archaeological microfossils to. My results suggest that Neandertals and modern humans from all geographic areas and technological contexts consumed plant foods. The patterns of plant use suggest that Neandertals ate as many plants, and used as many species of plants as did modern humans, and both groups made use of grass seeds and plant underground storage organs. There is evidence that both groups processed and cooked their plant foods. The similarity between all groups supplies little evidence to support the hypothesis of a simple dietary expansion among Upper Paleolithic and Later Stone Age modern humans that would have allowed them to replace Neandertals. We must look for a more nuanced explanation of the dietary differences between Neandertals and modern humans.

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