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Neanderthal diet

6 July 2010

We often hear about the Neanderthal diet – lots of meat. They hunted mammoths using only wooden spears – and approached near enough to get a shot into a vital spot – but is this picture true? A study in Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia repeats the same old stereo-type, prompted by some Russian research on an arm-bone of a Neanderthal that had lived some 100,000 years ago. Of course, Discovery News is probably not the media source likely to challenge the status quo – and so they spout all this stuff about Neanderthal hunting dynamics when in reality nobody really knows. In this new study (see http://news.discovery.com/archaeology/neanderthal-hormones-strong-arms.html ) the focus is on the size of their muscles (pop-eye arms they say) and repeat the stuff about hunting mammoths with spears. In that  respect, before the invention of the bow and arrow, they would have hunted with spears – and one of their arms would have become very strong. That would have happened whether they hunted mammoth, deer, or smaller game, and big muscles on shoulders and upper arms illustrates that fact – but it doesn’t neccessarily mean they hunted lots of mammoths. They used mammoth bones, it is true, but did they kill them – or did they come across mammoth bones and utilise them? There are a lot of made-up facts here that are repeated endlessly as if repeating them makes them true. Again, analysis of the bone make-up did not answer our question. It found evidence of ‘intense mineralisation’ with narrow bone marrow region cavities – a puzzling mixture. The muscle structure would suggest they had a lot of steroids, and an all-meat diet probably made this possible – or is this circular reasoning? However, steroids should have reduced the amount of mineralisation – so did they really eat all the meat that legend implies? Yes, the study concludes, apparently unable to think of abandoning the all-meat diet hypothesis. The Neanderthals must have had a hormonal balance that modern humans have not inherited, they say, emphasizing the point they evolved in the Ice Age in response to a cold climate – but did they? It is assumed they lived on meat as edible plants were few and far between – so what did all those large browsing animals live on?

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