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Neanderthal Teeth Illuminates Botanical Diet

on May 3, 2008
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National Geographic News: “Neandertals Ate Their Veggies, Tooth Study Shows” A study of dental plaque has shown that the Neanderthal diet was at least partially botanical, reports National Geographic News.

The dental plaque was recovered from the teeth of a Neanderthal skeleton found in Iraq and adds to our picture of what Neanderthals ate. In the case of this Neanderthal, who is known as Shanidar III because of the cave he was found in, the plaque contained microfossils of plant material.

The research was led by graduate paleobiology student Amanda Henry of George Washington University, who reported the findings in a Paleoanthropology Society meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

This is the first definite evidence of variety in their diet, adding to previous evidence of carnivory.

“It seems logical to me that they took advantage of any food sources they had available in their environments, which would vary from place to place and from time to time,” explained Henry. This is the first definite evidence of variety in their diet, adding to previous evidence of carnivory (such as animal remains at Neanderthal sites).

Previously, elevated levels of pollen grains in the soil near where Shanidar III was found had been ascribed to plant consumption by Neanderthals or even to the possibility of flowery burial of Neanderthals.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Neanderthal diets would be similar to other humans because Neanderthals were just as human as anyone living in ancient times! They lived in groups, buried their dead, wielded fire, hunted, left artwork, and more—all distinctly human. Neanderthals have only been shown to differ from other humans (which we think of as “modern”) through skeletal differences and differences in pigmentation, yet even so, a Neanderthal dressed in modern clothing and comparatively groomed would be hardly distinguishable from a non-Neanderthal human. (See this University of Zürich web page for a detailed reconstruction of a Neanderthal child’s face.)

Furthermore, genome researchers have suggested that people of European descent may contain Neanderthal genetic information (see Are Europeans Neandertal?). Like the hobbits of item #1 and the Maya of item #3 above, the evidence corroborates the Bible’s account in Genesis—all of humankind, no matter the specific physical characteristics, descended from Adam and Eve through Noah. The genetic information present in modern humanity was present in the Ark in Noah’s three sons and their wives, and through the dispersion at Babel, and in the generations that followed, people of various characteristics lived and died—all of them human. To suggest that humans living today are “better” than those of the past (Neanderthals or hobbits, for example) feeds straight into the evolutionary worldview that deems certain humans more highly evolved than others. No wonder the sad tale of Ota Benga.


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