Neanderthal Diet: 80% Meat, 20% Fruit, Veggies

Neanderthals liked a bit of veg with their red meat.

Neanderthals ate a diet consisting of 80 percent red meat and 20 percent plant-based food, according to two new associated studies that analyzed skeletons of early humans from Europe and Asia.

The findings support earlier research that at least some paleo diets relied heavily on red meats; included some fruits, vegetables and other plant materials; and were mostly, if not completely, devoid of seafood. The latest studies are published in the Journal of Human Evolution and the journal Quaternary International.

Gift List Circa 50,000 B.C.: Photos

"We have taken a detailed look at the Neanderthals' diet," co-author Hervé Bocherens of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen said in a press release. He added that he and his team also looked at the diet of Stone Age Homo sapiens.

"In the process," he said, "we were able to determine that the extinct relatives of today's humans primarily fed on large herbivorous mammals, such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses."

Bocherens and his colleagues analyzed Neanderthal and animal remains from two excavation sites in Belgium. They also looked at the diet of modern humans from the same time period, 45,000–40,000 years ago. The animals included mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, wild horses, reindeer, European bison, cave hyenas, bears, lions and wolves.

Isotope analysis of the collagen (component of connective tissue) in the various bones demonstrated that the Neanderthals' diet differed markedly from that of other predatory animals living at the same time.

Photos: What Did Prehistoric Humans Eat?

"Previously, it was assumed that the Neanderthals utilized the same food sources as their animal neighbors," Bocherens said. "However, our results show that all predators occupy a very specific niche, preferring smaller prey as a rule, such as reindeer, wild horses or steppe bison, while the Neanderthals primarily specialized on the large plant-eaters such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses."

Anthropologists have found weapons, like spears, associated with Neanderthals, who must have had a very organized, group approach to hunt such large prey.

While they clearly loved their meat, Neanderthals were also eating fruits, vegetables and other plants, too.

Original Paleo Diet Included Red Meat, Starchy Veggies

"In this study, we were able for the first time to quantitatively determine the proportion of vegetarian food in the diet of the late Neanderthals," Bocherens said. "Similar results were found for more recent Stone Age humans."

The scientists hope that this and future studies continue to shed light on what might have led to the disappearance of Neanderthals and their culture around 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals did not seem to be starving to death, so the researchers are ruling out that diet was a decisive factor.

It could just be, as many other studies suggest, that Neanderthals and their ways were absorbed into the modern human population due to interbreeding. It is now known that people of European and Asian descent are part Neanderthal.

Video: Did We Eat All the Neanderthals?

Regarding seafood, it should be noted that while this and other studies are putting a lot of emphasis on red meat's importance in early paleo diets, later populations of Europeans and Asians relied heavily on fish and other seafood, with many living to ripe old ages. Humans today, of course, can become vegetarians, with other studies concluding that plant-based diets may increase lifespan.

Time will tell if certain cultures, or perhaps even individuals, are better evolved for any particular diet.

Artistic rendering of Neanderthals in their environment.

"Ardi" steered clear of abrasive, hard foods, such as nuts, tubers and tough grasses. Instead this ancestor seems to have gone for meat and large amounts of soft fruits from its Eastern Africa home.

A. afarensis

was another early East African member of the human family tree that walked upright, but still looked a lot like a chimp. It had "robust jaws and large, thick-enameled molars," according to new research in the journal Biology Letters that helps to explain what it, and other early human-ish species, ate. 

 The diet might have included seasonal consumption of very tough foods, such as dried grasses, in addition to wild-bird eggs, nuts, seeds, tubers, small prey and fruits.

"Nutcracker Man," also from East Africa, got that nickname due to powerful jaws and huge molars. Nuts were clearly a major part of its diet, along with bugs, fruits and probably whatever else it could sink its big teeth into. There's also evidence that the roots of papyrus, a plant later used to make paper, were on the menu.

Handy Man, from eastern and southern Africa, was not too proud to eat woody plants, leaves and the guts of hunted animals, teeth suggest.

The large and wide molars of East Africa’s

Homo rudolfensis

indicate that this species could do some major chewing, but the jaw -- smaller than that of earlier humans -- would have been a limitation.

Upright Man, living in parts of Africa and Asia, made stone tools suitable for butchering game of all sizes. There is also speculation that Upright Man had a sweet tooth, gorging on high-energy honey whenever lucky enough to find it. 
 Additionally, this human probably cooked some foods. 

"Cooking is what makes the human diet 'human,' and the most logical explanation for the advances in brain and body size over our ape ancestors," Richard Wrangham of Harvard University explained. "It's hard to imagine the leap to

Homo erectus

without cooking's nutritional benefits."

Butchery tools and bones of animals associated with Heidelberg Man suggest that this human hunted -- among other animals --- hippos, rhinos and megaloceros, one of the largest deer that ever lived. Heidelberg Man lived in Europe, Africa and possibly parts of China.

Hailing from parts of Europe and Asia, Neanderthals were meat lovers to the max, hunting mammoths, elephants, deer, reindeer, muskox and more. They also included some fruits, nuts and veggies on the side. Food wasn’t always plentiful for early humans, though. "Looking at these fossilized teeth, you can easily see these defects that showed Neanderthals periodically struggled nutritionally," says anthropologist Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg. She determined, however, that the struggles were no worse than those confronted by modern Eskimos, so lack of food probably didn’t do in Neanderthals.

Living on the Island of Flores, Indonesia, gave this "Hobbit" human access to some unusual prey. Animal bones associated with the Hobbits suggest they ate the pygmy elephant Stegodon, giant rats and possibly huge lizards, such as Komodo dragons.

Cooking techniques, sophisticated tools and an educated palate all added to the broad diet of our species. There is some evidence that early

Homo sapiens

killed -- and ate -- Neanderthals. The idea is perhaps less shocking when one considers that primate meat is still regularly consumed by certain people. Cannibalism has occurred in human history but was usually a last resort during a famine. The bottom line is that, for better and worse, humans and those who came before will eat almost anything.