Rick Robinson

Jul 20th 2020

Before Paleo: What Did the European Neanderthals Eat?


Our ancient cousins the Neanderthals spread across Europe more than 100,000 years ago, and survived there through an ice age. Yet, they haven’t fared as well in popular culture.

Neanderthals are commonly pictured as brutish cavemen, even though as Smithsonian reminds us, their brains were, on average, larger than those of modern humans. They used the same tools as Homo sapiens of the same era, and as Science News notes, growing evidence links Neanderthals to such distinctively human traits as complex personal adornment.

Some of them also ate pretty well. The question of what did the European Neanderthals eat is one that touches on both the physical and the cultural side of their characteristics. Their diet may have accounted for their distinctive physical appearance, with a larger pelvis than modern humans, and may even explain why they eventually disappeared.

At the same time, the variety of the Neanderthal diet, and their evident ability to hunt or forage for a wide range of foodstuffs testifies to their cognitive and adaptive capabilities.

Ice Age Cuisine

Neanderthals spread across Europe for hundreds of thousands of years before the first modern humans, Homo sapiens, migrated there from Africa.

The rugged tundra-like climate of Europe during glacial eras limited the available food supply. In a subarctic winter, plant foods weren’t available, so the Neanderthals were adapted to subsist largely on meat, especially on lean meat with plenty of protein but little fat, according to Smithsonian.

But protein is hard to digest, and modern humans have a “protein limit” of about 35-50% maximum allowable protein in their diet, beyond which health problems arise. Neanderthals may have had guts adapted to handle a larger proportion of protein. Their chest and pelvis thus expanded to support a larger liver and kidneys.

Not Just Woolly Mammoths

Modern humans are omnivores, adapted to eat a wide variety of foods. While Neanderthals may have been especially adapted to subsist on meat, researchers have also found evidence for plant food. This evidence, as Sapiens reports, comes from everything from teeth, which can be examined for wear, to traces of seeds found in coprolites, or fossilized feces.

And new evidence is constantly coming to light. Only a year ago, Science Daily described the Neanderthal diet as monotonous, noting in particular that there were no hints that Neanderthals liked to fish.

Tasty Treats From Figueira Brava

But recent investigation of a cave on the coast of Portugal, reports Science News, shows signs of Neanderthals collecting seafood. “Menu items included mussels, limpets, eels and even sharks,” which the report adds might have been caught in shallow water or trapped in large tide pools.

The site, called Figueira Brava, is unusual for the Atlantic coast of Europe because the ice age coastline lay close to the modern coastline, so the inhabitants could conveniently bring back their catch to enjoy in the cave. Even so, adds ARCHAEOLOGY, the Neanderthals collecting seafood must have made baskets or sacks to carry it back to the cave.

The Neanderthals of Figueira Brava didn’t limit their diet to seafood, however. Science News also specifies land-based foods ranging from aurochs (wild cattle) to pine nuts, along with ducks and geese.

In short, growing evidence suggests that Neanderthal diets were only monotonous when harsh environmental conditions limited their potential menu. Otherwise, what did the European Neanderthals eat? Growing evidence suggests that, like us, they ate a wide range of foods, including pretty much whatever they could catch or gather.

In the end, however, suggests Smithsonian, the Neanderthals may have been doomed by the ice age adaptations their bodies had made to subsist heavily on protein; their heavier bodies were well suited to taking on mammoths. But as the climate changed, they may have lacked the speed and agility of their Homo sapiens cousins, even though they had similarly varied dinner tastes.