“Neanderthals diet includes the consumption of a variety of plant foods, in the form of phytoliths and starch grains recovered from dental calculus of Neanderthal skeletons from Shanidar Cave, Iraq, and Spy Cave, Belgium. Some of the plants are typical of recent modern human diets, including date palms (Phoenix spp.), legumes, and grass seeds (Triticeae). Many of the grass seed starches showed damage that is a distinctive marker of cooking. Hence, Neanderthals made use of the diverse plant foods available in their local environment and transformed them into more easily digestible foodstuffs in part through cooking them, suggesting an overall sophistication in Neanderthal dietary regimes.” Amanda G. Henry, Alison S. Brooks, Dolores R. Piperno, “Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium),” PNAS Early Edition, Dec. 28, 2010.
“Several authors argue that Neanderthals were unable to acquire as many calories from the same environments as were modern humans. Cooking improves the nutritional quality of plant foods and potentially altering the social organization of human groups. But the record of Neanderthal use of plants and cooking is sparse and inconclusive, limiting the interpretation of their diet and related behavior.
“The new paper has analyzed the plant microfossils (starch grains and phytoliths) trapped in dental calculus of Neanderthal individuals. The precipitation of minerals onto the surface of the teeth traps and preserves many components of the oral environment, including bacteria and food particles. Microfossils recovered from calculus are therefore a direct record of the plants an individual put in his mouth
“The small calculus samples from seven teeth. The three teeth from Shanidar III, Shanidar Cave, Iraq, show a total of 73 starch grains, of which 15 grains were identical in appearance to cooked starches from the Triticea. The finding of cooked Triticeae starches on the Shanidar teeth reinforces evidence that Near Eastern Neanderthals cooked plant foods. The four teeth from Spy I and Spy II, Spy Cave, Belgium, show a total of 136 starches, of which over 60
“The paper shows that Neanderthals included a spectrum of plant foods in their diets, including grass seeds (Triticeae cf. Hordeum), dates (Phoenix), legumes (Faboideae), plant underground storage organs, and other yet-unidentified plants, and that several of the consumed plants had been cooked. There is clear evidence of cooking in the recovered starch grains, and furthermore, several of the identified plant foods would have required moderate to high levels of preparation, including husking the grass seeds and harvesting the submerged underground storage organs of water lilies. These lines of evidence indicate Neanderthals were investing their time and labor in preparing plant foods in ways that increased their edibility and nutritional quality
“Overall, the data suggest that Neanderthals were capable of complex food-gathering behaviors that included both hunting of large game animals and the harvesting and processing of plant foods. The evidence indicates that both adaptations had already taken place by the Late Middle Paleolithic, and thus the exploitation of this range of plant species was not a new strategy developed by early modern humans during the Upper Paleolithic or by later modern human groups that subsequently became the first farmers.”