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A reassessment of plant foods in Neanderthal diets

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From the earliest reconstructions of Neanderthals as a distinct species, researchers have explained their disappearance as a result of various inferior qualities, ranging from reduced mental skills to obligate cannibalism. In the suite of dietary behavior, this has resulted in interpretations ranging from ideas that Neanderthals were obligate scavengers, to ideas that they were capable hunters to the point of being strict carnivores. Behavioral aspects related to diet, such as a sexual division of labor and control of fire have also been proposed to be different, or even entirely lacking for Neanderthals. However, recent studies have shown that there is no one single Neanderthal diet, that the ratio of plant and animal foods varies by geographic region, and that there is little to distinguish the variation in Neanderthal diets from that of early modern human diets. Where there are differences between Neanderthal and early modern human food choices, these can be attributed to environmental differences between the occupation periods. Overall, these new studies indicate that we must take a more nuanced view when applying interpretations based on dietary observations to the human fossil record. Our understanding of dietary behavior, particularly the use of plant foods and related dietary behavior such as cooking, must be grounded in a detailed understanding of local ecological conditions, and an accurate assessment of the influence of the environment, inherent biology, and technologies of the populations we study.

This talk is part of the Biological Anthropology Seminar Series series.

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