A prehistoric quenotte has just shed harsh light on the diet of Neanderthals, a recurring debate because the disappearance of our cousins, which occurred around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, has been frequently attributed to their subsistence strategy. Gold, “some toddlers crunched deer, rabbit and horse from an early age“says today Klervia Jaouen, researcher at the CNRS in a study published in the PNAS. Although several studies have recently come to inform us about the contents of the stomachs of Homo neanderthalensis, there is still no clear consensus on the variability of their diets over time and space. In 2017, work on dental tartar showed that some of them were largely vegetarians. Other studies established on the contrary that the diet of certain Neanderthals consisted of 80% meat. Hence the interest of this original and innovative work.
Zinc betrays the diet after thousands of years
Because it is the first time that the isotopic ratios of zinc contained in tooth enamel have been analyzed to identify the diet of a Homo neanderthalensis, 100,000 to 43,000 years old, discovered at the Spanish site of Gabasa. They reveal that at that time, on this Spanish site, we feasted very early on with game meat. The scientists analyzed a first molar, a tooth that forms between the ages of 0 and 3, and focused on what the toddler had eaten when he was two years old, a few months after being weaned from his mother’s breast. The analysis of zinc isotopic ratios of the small Neanderthal or the small Neanderthal (we do not know its sex), compared to that of other carnivores (wolves, foxes, hyena), omnivores (bears) and herbivores (rabbits, horses, deer, chamois) whose bones were found on the site, gives a good idea of the menus of each of these predators and the isotopic signature associated with their diet. Why focus on such a young subject? “There were only four teeth to analyze and our method is destructive. Meven if it is a few milligrams: we did not have the possibility to sample everything“, recognizes Klervia Jaouen. Teeth are not the best indicator of a long-term diet. “A third molar, or wisdom tooth, provides information on what the person has eaten around the age of 13, continues Klervia Jaouen. If we want to know more, it is better to rely on bones which record data throughout growth and life, but the technique is not possible for zinc.“