Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Meat-Eating Neanderthal from Jonzac

ResearchBlogging.orgThere is a new isotopic dietary analysis of Neanderthals at the site of Jonzac (Chez Pinaud), in SW France, available in the Journal of Human Evolution (Richards et al., 2008). Here's the abstract:
We report here on the isotopic analysis (carbon and nitrogen) of collagen extracted from a Neanderthal tooth and animal bone from the late Mousterian site of Jonzac (Charente-Maritime, France). This study was undertaken to test whether the isotopic evidence indicates that animal protein was the main source of dietary protein for this relatively late Neanderthal, as suggested by previous studies. This was of particular interest here because this is the first isotopic study of a relatively late Neanderthal associated with Mousterian of Acheulian Tradition (MTA, dating to approximately 55,000 to 40,000 BP) technology. We found that the Jonzac Neanderthal had isotopic values consistent with a diet in which the main protein sources were large herbivores, particularly bovids and horses. We also found evidence of different dietary niches between the Neanderthal and a hyena at the site, with the hyena consuming mainly reindeer.
This is a good, empirically strong study with many comparative data points drawn from associated faunal remains, and the conclusions are robust. It is also original in its use of collagen extracted from tooth dentine as opposed to bone, the latter being the material on which all previous isotopic studies of diet have been done. This is important because:

"Unlike bone, tooth dentine likely does not alter
over a lifetime, and therefore it reflects a specific period of
time of formation. Therefore, the isotopic data from this Neanderthal
premolar do not reflect the lifetime average, but instead
the diet at the ages of later childhood/early adolescence.

Our isotopic results for the Jonzac Neanderthal are compared
to the those reported for other European Neanderthals
in Table 3. The isotopic values are remarkably similar for all
of the Neanderthals, and in all cases, the authors of the various
studies concluded, as we have for Jonzac, that the main source
of dietary protein was animal protein, likely from large herbivores.
In no case do we see isotopic evidence for the significant
consumption of aquatic (marine or freshwater) protein,
as has been observed from Gravettian humans in Europe (Richards
et al., 2001; Pettitt et al., 2003). The results of our isotopic
study of the Jonzac Neanderthal therefore support the
emerging picture from isotopic studies that Neanderthals
have a similar dietary adaptation over a wide range of environments
and over a relatively long period of time." (Richards et al. 2008: 6)
This is interesting because it directly implies that, at Jonzac, a Neanderthal juvenile had a diet similar to that documented in adult Neanderthals elsewhere. This has concomitant implications for how animal food might have been shared within Neanderthal groups, suggesting that even relatively young individual had access to a relatively high quality diet.

Another interesting conclusion of this study is that hyenas and hominins preferentially targeted different herbivore taxa, with humans mainly going after bovids and horses and hyenas targeting reindeer. This might represent evidence for niche partitioning, that is, the concentration on different segments of a given niche by organisms that are in competition for it. In this case, the competition would have been between carnivorous species, and the partition would be reflect by the selective exploitation of different animal species within the high-return large herbivore niche. This, however, is based on the isotopic signature of a single hyena bone from a different layer than that where the Neanderthal tooth was recovered and compared to averaged isotopic signature of herbivores from two layers, so we need to be cautious to draw firm conclusions on the basis of this evidence alone.

Overall, though, it does seem that the Neanderthal at Jonzac had a childhood protein intake heavily dominated by the meat of large herbivores. A few comments, however: the Vindija remains are more recent by several millennia than the Jonzac tooth, so the observation that some comparatively late Neanderthals hunted lots of large herbivores is not completely unprecedented (Richards et al. 2000). Also, while this study provides one more isotopic data point on Neanderthal diets, the fact remains that we still have no such studies from Neanderthals from the southern part of their range, nor from coastal settings. I suspect that such results might alter the picture we have of Neanderthal animal procurement. Even if they don't, however, it is important to remember that

"dietary contributions from fat cannot be evaluated by isotope analysis
of collagen and so carbon and nitrogen isotope
studies can only reconstruct the likely proportions of
different species that made up the protein component
of their diets, which is unlikely to have comprised
more than about 40% of their diet by energy and possibly
only 25% of the diet overall (Cordain et al 2002)."
(Pearson 2007: 6).
Thus, while the results of isotopic dietary analyses of Neanderthals are uniquely informative, it is important to remember that they only provide data pertaining to one part of their diet. Thus, to assume that Neanderthals ate only meat because they appear to have drawn most of their protein from large herbivore is 'jumping the evidential gun'. Given that Neanderthals were top-ranked hunters living at relatively low population densities, it would have made little sense for them not to target the highest-ranked animal resources in their ecosystem as their main source of meat. And this behavior is exactly what isotopic studies have been demonstrating so far. As for the rest of the the Neanderthal diet, various lines of evidence - including a wonderful paper by Henry and Piperno (2008) presented at the Paleoanthropology Society meetings two weeks ago - are beginning to clearly show that Neanderthals also appear to have made extensive use of plant resources whenever they had access to them. Unfortunately, this is effectively invisible from an isotopic standpoint.


Henry, A., Piperno, D. 2008. Plants in Neandertal diet: Plant microfossil evidence from the dental calculus of Shanidar III. Paper presented on March 26, at the 2008 Annual Meetings of the Paleoanthropology Society, Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Pearson, J. A. 2007. Hunters, fishers and scavengers: a review of the isotope evidence for Neanderthal diet. Before Farming 2007/2-2.

Richards,M.P., Pettitt, P.B., Trinkaus, E., Smith, F.H., Karavanic´, I.,Paunovic´,M.,
2000. Neanderthal diet at Vindija and Neanderthal predation: the evidence
from stable isotopes. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 97: 7663-7666.

RICHARDS, M., TAYLOR, G., STEELE, T., MCPHERRON, S., SORESSI, M., JAUBERT, J., ORSCHIEDT, J., MALLYE, J., RENDU, W., HUBLIN, J. (2008). Isotopic dietary analysis of a Neanderthal and associated fauna from the site of Jonzac (Charente-Maritime), France. Journal of Human Evolution DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2008.02.007


Anne Gilbert said...

This is one of the best comments you've posted in a long time, though all of them are food for thought, IMO. It shows that Neandertals ate a lot of meat over large swaths of their range, which would seem to confirm other studies that have been done. And it probably tells us a lot about Neandertal lifestyles and activities, always interesting to me.

The only quibble I might have about this study(which I'm going to go out and read in hard copy eventually), is that there are known areas where Neandertals ate other things besides horses and "bovids". One of them that comes to mind is Salzgitter-Lebenstedt. There are others. It kind of surprises me that the people who did this report don't seem to be aware of them.
Anne G

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Hi, Anne.
Thanks for the kind comments. I don't think that Richards et al. meant to say that all Neanderthals everywhere ate mostly bovids and equids. The point they're really making is that Neanderthals are top predators that had constant access to the top-ranked large herbivores pretty much over their range. At Jonzac, in layers 7 and 8, these appear to have been horses and bovids, while at other sites they were other large herbivores, including rhino, if I remember this correctly.

Sol said...

The hyena ate reindeer and the Neandertal ate horses and cows. Could it be that this particular Neandertal specialized on horses and cows, while other individuals might have gone after delicious, delicious reindeer?

Now, that would be telling.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Hi, Sol.
It could be that individual Neanderthals had distinct diets, but it's impossible to ascertain without comparable analyses on contemporary remains from a single site. It would be surprising if this were the case, however, given the general assumption that Neanderthals must've lived in comparatively small groups that depended on close cooperation to effectively hunt ungulates.

The few empirical data that are available suggest that Neanderthals from a given site at a given time had very similar protein intakes (i.e., Les Pradelles, Vindija). In contrast, the one comparable data set of early modern humans (i.e., Mladec) displays more variability in both nitrogen and carbon isotopic signatures, which may hint at slightly different forms of social organization in the EUP, though this is difficult to ascertain without further study.

I have a feeling that if contemporary Neanderthals (in the sense that they were found within a common archaeological deposit) were shown to have distinct protein intakes, this would probably be attributed to their representing a palimpsest of occupations. What it would be interpreted as for modern humans might be quite diffferent.


Julien Riel-Salvatore said...
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