Neanderthals could have been carnivores, according to a new CNRS study

The results of a new study led by a CNRS researcher use zinc isotope analysis for the first time to determine the position of Neanderthals in the food chain.

Their findings published in the journal PNAS suggest they were, in fact, carnivores.

Whether or not Neanderthals were carnivores has yet to be decided by scientists. While some studies of dental calculus in individuals from the Iberian Peninsula seem to show that they were heavy plant consumers, other research from sites outside Iberia seems to suggest that they ate almost exclusively meat. .

Using new analysis techniques on a molar belonging to an individual of this species, researchers have shown that Neanderthals from the Gabasa site in Spain appear to have been carnivores.

To determine an individual’s position in the food chain, scientists until now generally had to extract proteins and analyze the nitrogen isotopes present in bone collagen. However, this method can often only be used in temperate environments, and rarely on samples older than 50,000 years. When these conditions are not met, the isotopic analysis of nitrogen is very complex, if not impossible. This was the case for the molar from the Gabasa site analyzed in this study.

Faced with these constraints, Klevia Jaouen, CNRS researcher, and her colleagues decided to analyze the isotopic ratios of zinc present in tooth enamel, a mineral resistant to all degradation. This is the first time that this method has been used to try to identify the diet of a Neanderthal. The lower the proportions of zinc isotopes in the bones, the more likely they are to belong to a carnivore.

The analysis was also carried out on the bones of animals from the same period and geographical area, including carnivores such as lynxes and wolves, and herbivores such as rabbits and chamois. The results showed that the Neanderthal man to whom this tooth from the Gabasa site belonged was probably a carnivore that did not consume the blood of its prey.

Broken bones found at the site, together with isotopic data, indicate that this individual also ate the bone marrow of its prey, without consuming the bones, while other chemical tracers show that it was weaned before the two years old. The analyzes also show that this Neanderthal probably died in the same place where he had lived as a child.

Compared to previous techniques, this new method of analyzing zinc isotopes makes it easier to distinguish omnivores from carnivores. To confirm their conclusions, the scientists hope to repeat the experiment on individuals from other sites, in particular the Payre site in southeastern France, where new research is underway.

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