New research shows Neanderthals in Siberia ate both plants and animals

Domingo Carlos Salazar and partner. Credit: RUVID Association

Neanderthals, extinct cousins ​​of modern humans, occupied Western Eurasia before becoming extinct and although they were once thought to travel as far east as Uzbekistan, in recent years a team international research with the participation of the University of Valencia found that they reach two thousand kilometers. further east to the Altai Mountains in Siberia. An international research team led by Domingo Carlos Salazar, CIDEGENT Excellence Researcher at the University of Valencia, published today in the Journal of Human Evolution the first attempt to document the diet of a Neanderthal through a unique combination of stable isotope analysis and identification of plant micro-remains in an individual.

The analysis of Neanderthal bones and dental stones from Siberia sheds light on their food 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 behavior and behavior. subsistence of the Neanderthals, who inhabited this Siberian forest steppe. , which is drier and colder than the western one. Studying the diet of Eastern Neanderthals helps to understand their behaviors, their mobility and their potential adaptive capacity.

A team of researchers from Spain, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Russia, led by physician and historian Domingo Carlos Salazar García of the University of Valencia, collected bone and tartar samples dental work on Neanderthal remains dated to 60 and 50 ka BP from the site. from Chagyrskaya in the Altai Mountains in Southern Siberia, located just 100 km from Denisova Cave. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyzes of a mandible (Chagyrskaya 6) revealed that this individual had a relatively high trophic level relative to the local food web, indicating that it consumed a large amount of animal protein from big and medium game hunting. . Using light microscopy, the researchers identified a diverse assemblage of microscopic particles from plants preserved in dental calculus from the same individuals as well as others from the site. These plant microremains indicate that the inhabitants of Chagyrskaya also consumed a number of different plants.

These findings may help us answer a long-standing puzzle about Neanderthals in Altai: the region was tempting enough that Neanderthals colonized the area at least twice, but genetic data indicates they clung barely, living only in small groups constantly at risk. of extinction. Dietary data now indicate that this unusual dwelling 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 should be investigated in future studies.

“Neanderthals were able to have a varied menu even in adverse climatic environments,” explains Domingo C. Salazar García, “it was really surprising that these eastern Neanderthals had broadly similar subsistence patterns to those of the Western Eurasia, which shows the great adaptability of our cousins, and therefore suggesting that their food ecology was probably not a disadvantage when competing with anatomically modern humans.”

“These microremains provide an indication that even when Neanderthals expanded across the vast, cold forest-steppe of Central Asia, they retained patterns of plant use that might have developed in Western Eurasia,” says Robert Power, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Food ecology

“A better understanding of the food ecology of Neanderthals is not only the key to better understanding why they became extinct, but also how they interacted with other populations with which they coexisted, such as the Denisovans,” explains Bence Viola, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. at the University of Toronto.

“To truly understand the diets of our ancestors and cousins, we need more studies like this that use several different methods on the same individuals. We can finally understand both the plant and animal foods they were eating,” suggests Amanda G. Henry, assistant professor at the Faculty of Archeology at Leiden University.

“The steppe lowlands of the Altai Mountains were suitable for the habitation of Neanderthals 60,000 years ago. Despite the sparse vegetation and its seasonal nature, the absence of tundra elements and a relatively mild climate allowed the Eastern Neanderthals retain the same dietary strategies as their western neighbors’ relatives,” says Natalia Rudaya, head of the PaleoData Lab at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Academy of science of Russia.

Siberian Neanderthals were fearless nomads

More information:
Domingo C. Salazar-García et al, Dietary Evidence of Central Asian Neanderthals: Combined Approach of Isotopes and Plant Microremains at Chagyrskaya Cave (Altai, Russia), Journal of Human Evolution (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2021.102985

Provided by the RUVID association

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