What were Neanderthals eating?

By: Jordyn Fugere


    The Neanderthal diet is a point of debate for many paleoanthropologists today. The debate is focused around two well-supported and developed hypothesis. The first is that the Neanderthals subsisted on a diet largely dominated by large terrestrial mammals, making them almost exclusively carnivores with an emphasis on protein and fat. The second is that the Neanderthals’ , diet was dominated by meat but also included marine, avian and small mammal resources when available. With the discovery of new evidence in the archaeological record, it is almost impossible to tell which side is correct and ultimately only time and extensive research will tell. This article will review current arguments and evidence on both sides of the debate.


   A predominantly carnivorous diet for Neanderthals is based on two main types of evidence: bone accumulations within the fossil record and stable isotope analysis. Isotope analysis of 12C/13C  can demonstrate whether protein sources were marine or terrestrial  based upon differences of carbon isotopes in atmospheric carbon dioxide and ocean bicarbonate. Analysis of  15N isotopes indicates the “trophic level effect” where consumers of a higher trophic level are presumed to have a higher 15N concentration than the food they prey on. For example, Carnivores that consume herbivores are expected to have a bone collagen nitrogen isotope percentage between 6-12%, which is 3-5% higher than the predicted Herbivore nitrogen isotope concentration of 3-7%.

            In research by Richards and Trinkaus[1], a sample of Neanderthal bone collagen 13C isotope representation was shown to be <-19%, meaning that they were acquiring their dietary protein from a terrestrial source. If they were to consume predominately marine resources, the expected 13C isotope observed would have been between 11-13%. In 15N isotope analysis, the Neanderthals observed showed 15N values 3-5% higher than contemporary herbivores, very similar to carnivores. If Neanderthals had any evidence of predominately Marine resource protein making them marine high trophic level carnivores, the percentage would have been expected to fall within the range of 18-20%. [GFM1] In a similar study by Lee-Thorp and Sponheimer[2], the 15N concentration was also much higher than contemporary and near contemporary herbivores like horses, reindeer, and bison and very similar to that of contemporary carnivores like wolves, hyenas and lions. This data suggest that Neanderthals were obtaining most of their protein from herbivores and other animals with high 15N ratios like bears.

            New advancements in trace evidence of Sr/Ca and Ba/Ca ratios were performed on a single Neanderthal specimen, presented again by Lee-Thorp and Sponheimer. These test results, while still speculative in the new nature of the experiment, concluded that the Neanderthal specimen from Saint Cesaire ate almost no plant food and that its carnivorous diet was predominately made up of bovids, with a small amount of mammoths, rhinos and horses consumed as well.

Demonstrating again Neanderthals preference for large, terrestrial mammals is the lack of rabbit bones at Neanderthal sites. Similar to today, rabbits while a small mammal are an easily attainable and highly abundant source of protein that is not largely present in the Neanderthal archaeological record as demonstrated in studies by Fa et al. [3]

Image from Fa et al demonstrating the lack of Rabbit bones in the Neanderthal Faunal Assemblage during the Middle Paleolithic.

            The other main supporting evidence for predominate carnivory is the fossil record itself. Many sites across the archaeological record of the Neanderthals have evidence of butchery and large faunal deposits consisting mainly of large terrestrial mammals. Patou-Mathis evaluated Neanderthal sites across Europe and found that the majority of fauna represented in the record consists of the remains of red deer, bison, ibex, Merck’s rhinoceros, mammoths, reindeer and bison. Specialized hunting of single species or single species predation is present in Western and north-central European sites for all of the majority represented species in one locality or another.

On the other side of the debate we have evidence for a larger variation in Neanderthal diet consisting not only of a considerable amount of protein from large terrestrial mammals, but also protein and nutrients from marine resources (fish & shellfish), avian resources (birds), smaller mammals, starchy pants, and underground storage vessels like tubers. Hardy and Moncel studied the stone tools from the Payre Neanderthal site in the Rhone Valley of France.  125 of the 182 artifacts they studied exhibited use-wear traces and microscopic residues of the  resources the tools had been  used to process. Hardy and Moncel found that 18 of the 182 artifacts demonstrated a high/hard silica polish indicative of use on starchy plant processing. 31 out of the 182 artifacts showed residues of mammal processing by the presence of hair, bone, skin, muscle tissue and soft polish wear patterns. The most surprising evidence is found in the presence of marine processing, evident on 10/182 artifacts. Fish residue can be distinguished by scale fragments, bone fragments, skeletal muscle or iridophores, as well as by dull/greasy polish streaks. However, these polish streaks are slightly inconsistent and difficult to distinguish at times. A single avian residue artifact was also found at the site, as evidenced by feather barbules present on the artifact’s cutting surface.

Research by Lev, Kislev, and Bar-Yosef[5] (further referred to as Lev et al.) examined Mousterian era carbonized plant remains in the Kebara Cave on Mt. Carmel in Israel. Lev et al. recovered a total of 4205 charred seeds and fruits around nearby hearths within the cave through flotation of materials in the lab. Of these 4205 seeds and fruit they identified 3956 of them, with a large majority (3313) of the specimens residing within the legume family. Ten different grains of Graimineae or “true grasses” were found at the site, presenting the possibility of the exploitation of cereal grains such as wheat, rice, millet, or barley in the Neanderthal diet. Because of the high legume content, there is also evidence for the possibility of a large part of the vegetarian Neanderthal diet consisting of wild plants and seeds that contained some poisonous substances.

Location of Kebara Cave from Lev et al.

15 of the 153 edible plant species in the surrounding area of Kebara Cave have edible underground organs such as asphodel, field eryngo, rampion bellflower, wild radish, fall dandelion and greater bindweed providing yet another nutritional source for Neanderthals. Yet another possibility in this vast ecology is edible tubers like coco nut-grass and winter crocus. Lev et al. also point out the likely exploitation of acorns, which provide a good source of carbohydrates. While they are not heavily present in the fossil record in comparison to their abundance at the time there are many hypothesis that attempt to explain the lack of presence, some of which are the possibility that the acorns were eaten or shelled elsewhere, stored in small quantities to be eaten in the winter or spring, poorly preserved due to carbonization destroying the fragile shell walls, or that the Neanderthals simply did not like acorns or did not know their nutritional benefits. A sole fruit seed of Vitis vinifera (wine grape) was found at Kebara, however Lev et al. predict the consumption of other tree fruits such as spiny hawtorhn, terebinth trees and Syrian pears as well as lotus jujube, tanning sumach, and mesquite bushes which were present in the same time span in other locations.

            Gaudzinski and Niven present a different take on Neanderthal diet variation based upon selective and unselective hunting. It is well established that cutmarks and hammer stone-induced impact notches are present in equid (horse), cervid (deer/moose) and bovid (reindeer) bones across the fossil record. At the Mauran and La Borde sites of France, as well as the Wallertheim site of Germany, bovid kill sites reflect evidence of selective hunting. The selective hunting is demonstrated by the age and sex distribution of the assemblage, with predominately prime aged individuals in the rutting season present. There is also evidence of breaking bones for marrow extraction, reflecting a controlled, systematic, selective exploitation of the Neanderthals bovid resources over time.

            Alternatively, at the Salzgitter-Lebenstadt site, there is evidence for short-term mass death scenarios of reindeer, signifying unselective, opportunistic killing. The specimens from this assemblage do preserve evidence of selective butchery and systematic exploitation and selection of the highest quality meat and marrow sources. While this evidence concurs with the hypothesis of Neanderthals as high trophic carnivores hunting the highest quality meat, Gaudzinski-Niven presents evidence for small game exploitation in the Middle and Upper Paleolithic as well. In the Middle Paleolithic-Mediterranean Neanderthal sites there is evidence of tortoise and shellfish remains in the fossil record as they were easy to catch and occurred in large abundances. In the Upper Paleolithic fossil record there is a wider variety of small game and bird assemblages[7]. Gaudzinski-Niven presents two hypothesis for this increase: the first being a decline in higher trophic level mammals like the large terrestrial herbivores, and the second being the increased benefits of avian, marine and small mammal resources on reproductive fitness.

            What Neanderthals diets consisted of is still highly contested. Were they mainly high trophic level carnivores, hunting large terrestrial mammals? Were they opportunistic hunters, relying on mass kill sites or were they selective hunters, strategically exploiting their resources over time? Or from a different view were they able to exploit a variety of resources, utilizing everything they had access to like small mammals, birds, shellfish, other fish, tubers, grains, and underground organs in addition to meat? Is it possible that this is under-represented in the fossil record? These questions along with many others need more evidence as well as further examination to be answered.

[1] Richards, Michael P and Trinkaus, Erik, “Isotopic evidence for the diets of European Neanderthals and early modern humans” PNAS 106. V.38 (2009) 16034-16039


[2] Lee-Thorp, Julia and Sponheimer, Matt. “Contributions of Biogeochemistry to Understanding Hominin Dietary Ecology.” Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. 49. (2006) 131-148.

[3] Fa, J.R, Stewart, J.R, Lloveras, L., Vargas, J.M. “Rabbits and hominin survival in Iberia.” Journal of Human Evolution. 64. (2013). 233-241.

[4] Fa, J.R, Stewart, J.R, Lloveras, L., Vargas, J.M. “Rabbits and hominin survival in Iberia.” Journal of Human Evolution. 64. (2013). 233-241.

[5] Lev, Efraim, Kislev, Mordechai, Bar-Yosef, Ofer. “Mousterian vegetal food in Kebara Cave, Mt. Carmel.” Journal of Archaeological Science. 32. (2005) 475-484.

[6] Lev, Efraim, Kislev, Mordechai, Bar-Yosef, Ofer. “Mousterian vegetal food in Kebara Cave, Mt. Carmel.” Journal of Archaeological Science. 32. (2005) 475-484.

[7] Gaudzinski-Windheuser, Sabine and Niven, Laura, “ Hominin Subsistence Patterns During the Middle and Late Paleolithic in Northwestern Europe” The Evolution of Hominin Diets” Integrating Approaches to the Study of Paleolithic Subsistence (2009) 99-111