Neanderthals, extinct evolutionary cousins of anatomically modern humans, occupied western Eurasia before disappearing and although it was believed that they extended to Uzbekistan, in recent years it has been discovered that they reached two thousand kilometers further east, to the Altai Mountains in Siberia. An international research team has completed the first attempt to document a Neanderthal’s diet using a unique combination of stable isotope analysis and identification of plant micro-remnants from an individual.
The study was led by Domingo Carlos Salazar, CIDEGENT researcher of excellence at the Universitat de València (UV) in Spain, and has been published in the academic journal Journal of Human Evolution under the title «Dietary evidence from Central Asian Neanderthals: A combined isotope -plant microremain approach at Chagyrskaya Cave (Altai, Russia) ».
Analysis of Neanderthal bones and dental stones from Siberian remains provides new and revealing data on their dietary ecology at the eastern limit of their expansion. It is a very dynamic region where Neanderthals also interacted with their enigmatic Asian cousins, the Denisovans. The work refers both to western Siberia, where there are studies that explain that modern humans responded with high mobility, and to the eastern part, where there is a lack of work that analyzes the behavior and subsistence of Neanderthals, who inhabited this Siberian forest steppe, which is drier and colder than the western one. Studying the diets of eastern Neanderthals allows us to understand their behaviors, mobility, and potential adaptability.
The research team, from Spain, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Russia, led by the physician and historian Domingo Carlos Salazar García, took bone samples and dental calculations from Neanderthal remains dated between 60,000 and 50,000 years before the present from the Chagyrskaya site. in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia, located just 100 kilometers from Denisova Cave. Analysis of the stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes of a jaw (Chagyrskaya 6) revealed that this individual had a relatively high trophic level compared to the local food web, indicating that it consumed a large amount of animal protein from hunting large and medium animals. Using light microscopy, the researchers identified a diverse set of microscopic plant particles preserved in the dental stone from the same individual, as well as others from the site. These plant micro-remnants indicate that the Chagyrskaya inhabitants also consumed several different plants.
Domingo Carlos Salazar García with the reconstruction of a Neanderthal individual. (Photo: UV)
These results may help answer a long-standing conundrum about Altai Neanderthals: The region was tempting enough for Neanderthals to colonize the area at least twice, but genetic data indicates they barely held out and lived only in small groups. they were constantly at risk of extinction. Dietary data now indicate that this unusual habitation pattern was probably not due to a lack of adaptation of their diet to the local environment. Instead, other factors such as climate or interaction with other hominins will need to be investigated in future studies.
“Even in adverse climatic environments, Neanderthals were capable of having a varied diet”, says Domingo C. Salazar García, who notes: “It was really surprising that these eastern Neanderthals had very similar subsistence patterns to those of western Eurasia, which demonstrates the high adaptability of our cousins, and therefore suggests that their dietary ecology was probably not a disadvantage when competing with anatomically modern humans. “
“These micro-remnants provide some indication that even as Neanderthals expanded into the vast cold forest steppe of Central Asia, they conserved plant use patterns that could have developed in western Eurasia,” says Robert Power, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
“A better understanding of the dietary ecology of Neanderthals is the key to better understanding not only why they disappeared, but also how they interacted with other populations with which they coexisted, such as Denisovans,” says Bence Viola, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology. from the University of Toronto.
“To really know the diets of our ancestors and cousins, we need more studies like this one that use multiple different methods in the same individuals. We can finally find out both the plant foods and the animals they ate, ”says Amanda G. Henry, a professor at the Faculty of Archeology at the University of Leiden.
“The steppe lowlands of the Altai Mountains were suitable for Neanderthals to inhabit 60,000 years ago. Despite the sparse vegetation and its seasonal nature, the absence of elements from the tundra and the relatively mild climate allowed eastern Neanderthals to maintain the same feeding strategies as their western relatives, ”says Natalia Rudaya, director of the Institute’s Paleodata Laboratory. of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. (Source: UV)