New Insight on Starch Grains Recovered from Neanderthal Teeth

New Insight on Starch Grains Recovered from Neanderthal Teeth

What do you do when someone has a piece of food caught between his or her teeth? Call attention to it? Ignore it and hope they discover it later on their own? Either way, it is an awkward situation.

Starch grains stuck between Neanderthal teeth are causing a similarly awkward situation for a team of paleoanthropologists from the Smithsonian. Earlier this year, these researchers published a paper wherein they concluded that Neanderthals not only ate plant matter, but also cooked the plants before consuming them.1 This work indicates that Neanderthals’ diet was far more diverse than previously thought. It also implies that Neanderthals were capable of fairly sophisticated behavior, stemming from advanced cognitive ability like that possessed by modern humans.

The Smithsonian researchers arrived at these conclusions after studying the dental calculus surrounding Neanderthal teeth recovered from the Shanidar (Iraq) and Spy (Belgium) caves. The researchers isolated starch grains from the dental calculus and determined, from the grains’ morphological structure, that the starches derived from grasses, dates, legumes, underground storage organs, and other plant materials. The grains also showed damage consistent with heating. Because these specimens came from two locales, the investigators concluded that cooking plant matter (which releases more nutrients from the foodstuff) was a widespread activity among Neanderthals, indicating that these creatures could effectively make use of resources in their environment and utilize sophisticated gleaning and food preparation practices.

This result, together with other studies, suggests to researchers that their understanding of Neanderthal diet requires radical revision. Rather than simply consuming easy-to-kill herbivores, it looks as if these hominids were making use of a wide range of animals and plants. (For a little background on the traditional view of Neanderthal dietary practices, go here and for my response to recent discoveries about Neanderthal hunting-and-gathering behavior, go here.)

The video below aptly summarizes scientists’ changing views:

Of course, this discovery also means that RTB’s view of Neanderthals may be wrong and require revision as well.

Did Neanderthals Really Cook Their Food?

On the January 3, 2011 edition of Science News Flash, I point out that while there is good evidence that Neanderthals were consuming plants, it may be premature to conclude that they were cooking their food (and that they had advanced cognitive abilities). It’s true the damage to the starch grains appears consistent with what occurs during cooking, but it still could have arisen by some other mechanism.

And it looks as if that is indeed the case. Two archeologists from the United States and Great Britain reevaluated the data published by the Smithsonian scientists and pointed out that the damage to the starch grains is the same type of damage that occurs as starch grains age.2 It seems the paleoanthropologists from the Smithsonian overlooked the most obvious explanation for the starch grain morphologies. Awkward!

Moreover, archeologists have not recovered any grinding implements, such as would be used to prep the plant matter for cooking, from the Shanidar or Spy caves, let alone any other Neanderthal site. There remains no compelling evidence that Neanderthals were cooking vegetable matter.

  1. Amanda G. Henry, Alison S. Brooks, and Dolores R. Piperno, “Microfossils in Calculus Demonstrate Consumption of Plants and Cooked Foods in Neanderthal Diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium),” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (January 11, 2011): 486–91.
  2. Matthew J. Collins and Les Copeland, “Ancient Starch: Cooked or Just Old?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA (2011), on-line early edition, doi:10.1073/pnas.1103241108