Neanderthal diet at Vindija and Neanderthal predation: The evidence from stable isotopes
Archeological analysis of faunal remains and of lithic and bone tools has suggested that hunting of medium to large mammals was a major element of Neanderthal subsistence. Plant foods are almost invisible in the archeological record, and it is impossible to estimate accurately their dietary importance. However, stable isotope (δ13C and δ15N) analysis of mammal bone collagen provides a direct measure of diet and has been applied to two Neanderthals and various faunal species from Vindija Cave, Croatia. The isotope evidence overwhelmingly points to the Neanderthals behaving as top-level carnivores, obtaining almost all of their dietary protein from animal sources. Earlier Neanderthals in France and Belgium have yielded similar results, and a pattern of European Neanderthal adaptation as carnivores is emerging. These data reinforce current taphonomic assessments of associated faunal elements and make it unlikely that the Neanderthals were acquiring animal protein principally through scavenging. Instead, these findings portray them as effective predators.
Summary and Conclusions
Isotope analyses of two Neanderthals and associated fauna from Vindija Cave, Croatia, have indicated that the bulk of their dietary protein came from animal sources. Comparison with faunal remains from this and other sites of similar age indicates that the Vindija Neanderthal isotope values were similar to those of other carnivores. These results are very close to the results for earlier Late Pleistocene Neanderthals from France and Belgium.
Therefore, the emerging picture of the European Neanderthal diet indicates that although physiologically they were presumably omnivores, they behaved as carnivores, with animal protein being the main source of dietary protein. This finding is in agreement with the indirect archeological evidence and strongly points to the Neanderthals having been active predators.
This doesn’t mention that modern humans at that time also ate something like 70% flesh calorie diets, as do modern hunter gatherers, so this doesn’t make the Neanderthals (at about 90%) vastly different to ancient humans. However, this carnivorous life would have had some effects on the Neanderthal metabolism. This diet of nearly solid red meat would have been very gout inducing, so Neanderthals may have had a more efficient method of removing excess uric acid from their blood. Interestingly, in many carnivores uric acid is the antioxidant of choice. In modern humans low uric acid levels have been implicated in neuro-degenerative illnesses like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
This would also have meant Neanderthals would probably have a very poor tolerance to sugar, and a carbohydrate based diet (such as was adopted in the Neolithic) would have caused serious health problem as well as infertility. Even swapping over to the early modern human diet of about 30% carbs could have caused serious health problems to a mainly carnivorous human (diabetes, infertility, obesity).
I’m guessing Neanderthal teeth weren’t particularly well designed to cope with grinding tough plant fibres if all they ate was meat, and the tooth enamel probably wouldn’t be as resistant to fruit acids and sugars.