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Neanderthals cooked and ate plants and vegetables, a new study of Neanderthal remains reveals. The study is the first to confirm that the Neanderthal diet was not confined to meat and was more sophisticated than previously thought. The popular image of Neanderthals as great meat eaters is one that has up until now been backed by some circumstantial evidence. Chemical analysis of their bones suggested they ate little or no vegetables. This perceived reliance on meat had been put forward by some as one of the reasons these humans become extinct as large animals such as mammoths declined. But a new analysis of Neanderthal remains from across the world has found direct evidence that contradicts the chemical studies. Researchers found fossilised grains of vegetable material in their teeth and some of it was cooked. Although pollen grains have been found before on Neanderthal sites and some in hearths, it is only now there is clear evidence that plant food was actually eaten by these people. Professor Alison Brooks, from George Washington University, told BBC News: “We have found pollen grains in Neanderthal sites before but you never know whether they were eating the plant or sleeping on them or what. One question raised by the study is why the chemical studies on Neanderthal bones have been wide of the mark. According to Professor Brooks, the tests were measuring proteins levels, which the researchers assumed came from meat.
Neanderthals’ diets are highly debated: they are traditionally considered carnivores and hunters of large mammals, but this hypothesis has recently been challenged by numerous pieces of evidence of plant consumption. Ancient diets are often reconstructed using nitrogen isotope ratios, a tracer of the trophic level, the position an organism occupies in a food chain. Neanderthals are apparently occupying a high position in terrestrial food chains, exhibiting slightly higher ratios than carnivores like hyenas, wolves or foxes found at the same sites. It has been suggested that these slightly higher values were due to the consumption of mammoth or putrid meat. And we also know some examples of cannibalism for different Neanderthal sites. Paleolithic modern humans, who arrived in France shortly after the Neanderthals had disappeared, exhibit even higher nitrogen isotope ratios than Neanderthals.