Neanderthal Dietary Habits: Review of the Isotopic Evidence

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Carbon and nitrogen isotopic ratios of fossil bone collagen reflect those of the average diet, and can be preserved for tens of thousands of years under favorable conditions. Twelve European Neanderthal bones ranging in age from 100,000 to 32,000 years old have yielded reliable collagen. For this well-preserved collagen, isotopic signatures offer the possibility to reconstruct the dietary habits of Neanderthals. The degree of interpretation of the isotopic results depends on the paleoecological context, especially on the knowledge of the available food resources and their isotopic signatures. Animal bones associated with the studied human remains provide the most reliable source for such information. In addition, isotopic data from animal bones can be retrieved from nearby sites of similar age if they are not present in the hominid site. However, the precision of the interpretation decreases when difference in distance and age between hominids and fauna increases.

This paper illustrates how such isotopic investigations have impacted our understanding of Neanderthals' dietary habits. A critical review of the available data will be presented, with a discussion of some methodological points, such as preservation assessment and quantification of consumed protein resources. Comparisons of prey selection patterns based on isotopic results between Neanderthals and animal predators, such as hyenas, show that Neanderthals obtained much of their dietary proteins from very large herbivores in open environments by hunting. Discrepancies between prey consumption by the isotopic approach and by zooarcheology may point to individuals with special diets or transport decision that lead to the underrepresentation of very large mammal bones in archeological assemblages.