One explanation for the extinction of our hominid cousins is that Neanderthals weren't as smart about what foods they ate as our ancestors. But newly discovered Neanderthal teeth reveal a complex diet, mixing in fruits and vegetables with their meat.

It's easy to think of Neanderthals as pure hunters, only eating whatever they managed to kill from hunting - after all, that seems far more in keeping with the "caveman" stereotype. But the eating habits of Neanderthals were far more complex than that, according to analysis of Neanderthal teeth from locales as far distant as Belgium and Iraq. It's only recently become possibly to precisely identify what foods were left behind on the teeth through very careful analysis of grain particles.


The data reveals that Neanderthals were eating dates, barley, legumes, and maybe water lilies as well. Of course, the teeth can only tell us the last meals a Neanderthal ate before he or she died, so we can only guess what they were eating before that. We do know that Iraq's Shanidar Cave and Belgium's Spy Cave were near other foodstuffs like walnuts, chestnuts, lettuce and chicory relatives, and other relatives of modern herbs. We also know from earlier research that Neanderthals were near acorns, cattails, and pistachios.

All of that makes for a pretty diverse diet, particularly because not all of those grow at the same times of year. That means that Neanderthals were capable of putting together more complicated diets that accounted for seasonal variations in crop availability, as the researchers explain:

"Overall, these 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."


Even more intriguingly, the barley found on the Neanderthals' teeth showed clear signs of being cooked — possibly either baked or boiled. Taken together, these new findings reveal Neanderthals had far more complex eating habits than they are generally given credit for, and it's unlikely that poor diet was what killed them off. After all, as the researchers note, they were eating the same things our ancestors were:

"Neanderthal foraging patterns were much like those of modern humans, including small game, marine resources, plant foods, similar use of fire, some cooking, and other food processing."

[Proceedings of the National Academy of Science]