Bringing home the . . . barley? Neanderthals ate plants, too.
Neanderthals have often been portrayed as the ultimate hunters, but new research led by Dr. Amanda Henry shows they were also plant connoisseurs who ate a variety of starchy foods like grass seeds and tubers.
Though Neanderthals certainly ate large game like reindeer, horses and mammoths, some have thought that they also avoided foods like plants and small animals. In contrast, early modern humans ate a wide variety of foods, including large and small game, fish and plants. Some researchers have argued that Neanderthals' narrow diet made them more vulnerable to starvation and eventually extinction once early modern humans arrived in Europe.
The new study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, shows that Neanderthals did eat plants, and in fact they ate as many different kinds of plants as early modern humans did. Henry and colleagues studied tiny plant particles that were preserved in dental plaque and on stone tools. These particles can be identified, and therefore provide a record of the plant foods that individuals and populations ate. After examining this record on ancient samples from across Europe, the Near East and Africa, the scientists discovered that both Neanderthals and early modern humans ate many different types of plants. Both groups ate grass seeds, like the wild relatives of wheat and barley, and tubers, like the fleshy root of the waterlily. This research suggests there were fewer dietary differences between Neanderthals and early modern humans than previously thought, and that starchy plant foods, including grass seeds, have been a part of human diet since well before the origin of agriculture.
The paper is available online at: http://authors.elsevier.com/sd/article/S0047248414000189
Scientists unlock a ‘microbial Pompeii’
PWG post-doc Domingo Carlos Salazar-Garcia is part of an international team that has discovered a ‘microbial Pompeii’ preserved on the teeth of skeletons around 1,000 years old. The key to the discovery is the dental calculus (plaque), which preserves bacteria and microscopic particles of food on the surfaces of teeth, effectively creating a mineral tomb for microbiomes.
The research team discovered that the ancient human oral cavity carries numerous opportunistic pathogens and that periodontal disease is caused by the same bacteria today as in the past, despite major changes in human diet and hygiene. They also discovered that the ancient human oral microbiome already contained the basic genetic machinery for antibiotic resistance more than eight centuries before the invention of the first therapeutic antibiotics in the 1940s. As well as health information, the scientists recovered dietary DNA from ancient dental calculus, allowing the identification of dietary components, such as vegetables, that leave few traces in the archaeological record.
This pioneering analysis of ancient oral microbiome ecology and function, published recently in Nature Genetics (http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ng.2906.html), was led by Dr. Christina Warinner at the University of Oklahoma, and involved the contributions of 32 scientists at twelve institutions in seven countries.