Shorter can be better: Case in point, Bryan Hockett has a short (five pages) paper in press in Quaternary International entitled "The consequences of Middle Paleolithic diets on pregnant Neanderthal women," and it is a must-read for anyone interested in prehistoric nutrition. In a nutshell, what he does here is consider what the hypothesized Neanderthals caloric requirements proposed by a number of recent studies (e.g., Froehle and Churchill 2009; Snodgrass and Leonard 2009) would have meant for a pregnant Neanderthal. In other words, are these estimates even realistic in concrete terms of the number and kinds of animals eaten?
The short answer is no. First, from a strictly caloric standpoint, the amount of food suggested by these estimates is huge, especially for a hunter-gatherer: "from the perspective of a modern fast food diet, a pregnant Neanderthal women would need to eat 10 large burgers per day (or three in the morning, three at mid-day, and four in the evening), or 17 orders of chicken nuggets per day (or five orders in the morning, six at mid-day, and another six in the evening" (Hockett 2012 2012: 2).
Second, and most importantly, the high amounts of meat suggested by the estimates would likely have been lethal for pregnant Neanderthal women. A nutritional ecology perspective emphasizes that humans need more than just calories to survive, especially on range of micronutrients (Hockett and Haws 2003, 2005). Here, using this approach, Hockett shows that the amount of meat currently generally assumed to have been eaten by Neanderthals would have yielded toxic amounts of protein (relative to fat), an unhealthy overconsumption of some mirconutrients (e.g., zinc, potassium - potentially damaging to internal organs), and a severe underconsumption of others (e.g., carbs, folate, calcium). In short, subsisting on a heavily meat-dominated diet given the energy requirements estimated in other published studies would have been impossible. This is all the more dramatic given that he emphasizes that terrestrial herbivores generally yield comparable ranges of essential nutrients. This means that no matter what land mammals they would have hunted, Neanderthals would still have not been able to get the micronutrients to stay alive, especially with the metabolic needs of a pregnant Neanderthal.
This ties in with recent literature that I have discussed on this blog that shows that Neanderthals routinely consumed other kinds of foods than terrestrial mammals, including plants, shellfish and sea mammals, all of which are rich in various essential nutrients often not found in terrestrial mammals. This paper goes a long way to show that hypothetical reconstructions of past diets need to be confronted both with their overall nutritional implications and with archaeological data, the latter of which clearly shows that Neanderthals readily exploited other resources where they were available. As Hockett emphasizes in his conclusion, this is not to say that Neanderthals and modern humans necessarily had comparably broad diets, or that the Neanderthal diet must have necessarily been 'modern' (think about it: is there anything inherently modern about a grizzly bear's diet, even though it sustains it and draws on many resources?). However, it does force people to start grappling with the question of how realistic some recent purported estimates of Neanderthal dietary needs and strategies actually are.
Froehle, A., & Churchill, S., 2009. Energetic competition between Neandertals and anatomicallymodern humans.PaleoAnthropology 2009, 96-116.
Hockett, B. (2011). The consequences of Middle Paleolithic diets on pregnant Neanderthal women Quaternary International DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2011.07.002
Hockett, B., & Haws, J. (2003). Nutritional ecology and diachronic trends in Paleolithic diet and health Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 12 (5), 211-216 DOI: 10.1002/evan.10116
Hockett, B., & Haws, J. (2005). Nutritional ecology and the human demography of Neandertal extinction Quaternary International, 137 (1), 21-34 DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2004.11.017
Snodgrass, J., & Leonard, W., 2009. Neandertal energetics revisited: insights into populationdynamics and life history evolution. PaleoAnthropology 2009, 220-237.