For a long time, Neanderthals were viewed as the classic ‘other’ in the story of human evolution. The less intelligent, scavenger hominin that lost out to homosapiens in this ‘Great Game’ and went extinct.
But that view has changed in recent years. Thanks to new scientific developments, and the wealth of Neanderthal archaeology we have surviving, archaeologists and anthropologists have been able to dispel these old myths. New discoveries have revealed so much more about the lifestyles of Neanderthal communities across the prehistoric world. One extraordinary part of this great wealth of information is what experts can now ascertain about a Neanderthals’ diet: about what meats and plants a hunter-gatherer Neanderthal community consumed.
When someone mentions Neanderthals today, you’d be forgiven for instantly thinking of their striking body structure. These were bigger, bulkier hominins – well-suited for action-filled lifestyles. Because of this, they required more energy than a normal human being today. They required more food to sustain themselves and their community.
Neanderthals consumed a large variety of foods. What they ate depended largely on their local environment – the animals and vegetation that co-existed alongside these prehistoric communities. Naturally, to combat different types of prey, we also see a great variation in hunting techniques employed by Neanderthal communities, living in different areas of the World. And make no mistake, to hunt their sometimes-dangerous prey, Neanderthals were expert hunters. They had to be.
But what sorts of prey are we talking about?
Neanderthals emerged as a distinct species c.450,000 years ago and existed for some 350,000 years before we lose sight of them in the archaeological record. As such they lived during the mid-late Palaeolithic. We have evidence for these communities existing across Eurasia: from the British Isles to the borders of China.
Neanderthals existed at a time when some of the most iconic prehistoric megafauna roamed across the World. And archaeologists have abundant evidence for Neanderthals hunting some of these gigantic, ancient animals that included both mammoths and elephants.
On the Island of Jersey for instance, where we know Neanderthals were present, heaps of butchered mammoth bones were discovered at the Palaeolithic site of La Cotte de St Brelade. A potential ‘mass kill site’, where herds of mammoth were driven over the cliffs by Neanderthal hunters.
But Neanderthal hunting wasn’t just restricted to the biggest megafauna that walked the prehistoric planet. We know that they hunted other large game too: aurochs, large horses, rhinos, bears, ibex, reindeer and so on. No matter where a Neanderthal community was based, archaeological evidence suggests that they would hunt large, local prey.
Alongside the larger prey, Neanderthals would also hunt smaller game too. This small animal hunting may have been less impressive than taking down a mammoth, but it seems to have been a very significant part of many Neanderthal diets. For example, throughout the Iberian Peninsula, we have evidence for Neanderthals consuming a large variety of small game: rabbits, hares, marmots and birds such as duck for instance.
And it’s not just terrestrial prey that was uncovered; seafood sites also survive, documenting how Neanderthals could also on occasion consume both big and small marine life: dolphins, seals, crabs and fish for instance. The food a Neanderthal community consumed depended on the habitat in which they dwelled.
Although a significant part of a Neanderthal’s diet, we know that these hominins didn’t just consume meat. Thanks to the scientific analysing of Neanderthal remains themselves, we know that across all of the prehistoric world across various climates, Neanderthals consumed a great variety of plants. Nuts, seeds and fruits for instance.
From sites like Shanidar Cave in the Near East, where several individuals show evidence of eating fruits such as date palms before their demise, to Krapina in Croatia – where the wear found on the teeth of Neanderthals suggested that foraging edible vegetation was a key part of this community’s lifestyle. These Neanderthals were expert hunters, but they were expert gatherers too.
Cannibalism amongst Neanderthals
The mention of Krapina cave in Croatia also leads us onto a more infamous aspect associated with Neanderthals: that they were cannibals. Krapina itself has been studied for more than 100 years; Neanderthal remains discovered here included a lot of de-fleshing marks, leading early scholars to claim that this was a sign of cannibalism in the community.
More recently, however, this view has been challenged. Scholars such as Mary Russell recently argued that these Neanderthal remains were being treated differently to the animal remains discovered nearby. If this was the case, the marks may not actually be to do with cannibalism, but with a ritual, post-mortuary act? A second burial perhaps?
The debate will continue. Nevertheless there do seem to be some cases from certain sites that indicate cannibalism occurring amongst certain Neanderthal groups. But this was not normal practice; these are extraordinary cases. Cannibalism was not a mainstay of a Neanderthals’ diet.
Rebecca Wragg-Sykes is an archaeologist, author and Honorary Fellow at the University of Liverpool, her first book KINDRED: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art is a critically acclaimed and award-winning bestseller: a deep dive into the 21st century science and understanding of these ancient relatives.