- For the first time, zinc isotope ratios in tooth enamel have been analyzed with the aim of identifying the diet of a Neanderthal.
- The Neanderthal to whom the tooth belonged was probably a carnivore.
- Other chemical tracers indicate that this individual did not consume the blood of their prey, but ate the bone marrow without consuming the bones.
For the first time, a new study has used zinc isotope analysis to determine the position of Neanderthals in the food chain. The findings suggest that they were in fact carnivores.
Were Neanderthals carnivores? According to scientists, the debate is still ongoing. Although some investigations of the dental tartar of individuals from the Iberian Peninsula seem to indicate that Neanderthals were major consumers of plants, other studies carried out at sites outside Iberia appear to suggest that they consumed almost nothing but meat. Now, using new analytical techniques on a molar belonging to an individual of this species, researchers have shown that the Neanderthals at the Gabasa site in Spain appear to have been carnivores.
Led by a CNRS researcher, the study was published on October 17th in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Until now, to determine an individual’s position in the food chain, scientists have generally had to extract proteins and analyze the nitrogen isotopes present in the bone collagen. However, this technique can usually only be used in temperate environments, and only rarely does it work on samples over 50,000 years old. When these conditions are not met, nitrogen isotope analysis is very complex, or even impossible. This was the case for the molar from the Gabasa site analyzed in this study.
Given these constraints, Klevia Jaouen, a CNRS researcher, and her colleagues decided to analyze the zinc isotope ratios present in the tooth enamel, a mineral that is resistant to all forms of degradation. This is the first time this technique has been used to attempt to identify a Neanderthal’s diet. The lower the proportions of zinc isotopes in the bones, the more likely they are to belong to a carnivore. The analysis was also carried out on the bones of animals from the same time period and geographical area, including herbivores like rabbits and chamois, and carnivores such as lynxes and wolves.
According to the results, the Neanderthal to whom this tooth from the Gabasa site belonged was most likely a carnivore who did not consume the blood of their prey.
Broken bones found at the site, together with isotopic data, suggest that this individual also ate the bone marrow of their prey, without consuming the bones. Additionally, other chemical tracers show that they were weaned before the age of two. Analyses also reveal that this Neanderthal probably died in the same place they had lived in as a child.
Compared to previous techniques, this new zinc isotope analysis method makes it easier to distinguish between omnivores and carnivores. The scientists hope to repeat the experiment on individuals from other sites to confirm their conclusions. They would especially like to test a specimen from the Payre site in south-east France, where new research is underway.
- In France, the work involved scientists from the Geosciences Environment Toulouse Laboratory (CNRS/CNES/IRD/UT3 Paul Sabatier), and the Geology Laboratory of Lyon: Earth, Planets, Environment (CNRS/UCBL1), together with teams from the University of Zaragoza, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, the Max
Planck Institute for Chemistry, Mainz, and the Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.
Reference: “A Neandertal dietary conundrum: Insights provided by tooth enamel Zn isotopes from Gabasa, Spain” by Klervia Jaouen, Vanessa Villalba-Mouco, Geoff M. Smith, Manuel Trost, Jennifer Leichliter, Tina Lüdecke, Pauline Méjean, Stéphanie Mandrou, Jérôme Chmeleff, Danaé Guiserix, Nicolas Bourgon, Fernanda Blasco, Jéssica Mendes Cardoso, Camille Duquenoy, Zineb Moubtahij, Domingo C. Salazar Garcia, Michael Richards, Thomas Tütken, Jean-Jacques Hublin, Pilar Utrilla and Lourdes Montes, 18 October 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.