Neanderthals were omnivores. Photo: Erich Ferdinand / Flickr
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Further evidence emerges suggesting Neanderthals weren't so different to us

The extinction of any species makes for headline news, but none more so than the Neanderthals. The death of our hominid relatives tens of thousands of years ago instils a particularly morbid fear that we're about to share their fate. 

Homo Neanderthalensis has never fared well in the media. For decades our archaic cousin has been portrayed as a club-wielding caveman, investing all his energy on spearing the next mammoth and avoiding the T-rexes trampling overhead - yet new research is constantly telling us just how wrong the stereotype, and how similar they were to us.

A study published in journal PLoS ONE this week has discovered that Neanderthals were not, as often believed, purely carnivores - our ancestral cousins made sure to get their greens. After sifting through what might well be the oldest human poo in the world, anthropologists from MIT and the University of La Liguna found remains of both meat and vegetable matter, a discovery which may have consequences for the multitude of Neanderthal extinction theories floating around.

The research team has “obtained the first direct evidence of animal and plant intake by Neanderthals,” according to lead author Ainara Sistiaga:

Taken together, these data suggest that the Neanderthals from El Salt consumed both meat and vegetables, in agreement with recent hypotheses based on indirect evidence."

We’ve seen circumstantial evidence for Neanderthal vegetable consumption before (like plant matter lodged in teeth) but nothing as conclusive as this. It may not seem like science's biggest discovery, but we now know that early human poo was high in greens.

This runs counter to our preconceptions of them as raging carnivores on a Luis Suarez-scale, but shouldn't come as a big surprise. Neanderthals are more like siblings than cousins.  They used advanced tools, probably had a sophisticated grasp of language, wore make-up and even buried their dead with rituals. It's hard to argue they were primitive. Their DNA differed to ours by a miniscule 0.1 per cent, though in fairness that’s not actually too shocking: we’re genetically fifty per cent the same as a banana.

Still, these tantalising similarities help explain why the media gets so worked up every time a new discovery about our prehistoric relatives’ demise is made. Their extinction – which coincided with lower temperatures and the rise of ‘anatomically modern homosapiens’ in the Late Pleistocene – has been furiously explained away by dozens of unproven hypotheses. They had bad, meat-heavy diets. They were invaded by unfriendly foreigners. Climate change got them.

Funnily enough, all of these doomsday theories bear a striking resemblance to issues that humans are worrying about today. And whilst some are definitely plausible explanations, others – like this one blaming feminism for it – are a little more far-fetched. The problem is we simply don’t know enough about Neanderthals. We’ve found so few remnants of them and they lived so long ago that it’s hard to pin down a precise reason. Broadly speaking, the most likely options have been whittled down to either competition with us or climate change – but the specifics are much more complicated.

Let's look at the climate change hypothesis. Not long before we invaded their territories, during periods of fluctuating temperatures, Neanderthal population levels suffered a devastating blowAccording to Professor Love Dalén, of the Swedish Museum of Natural History:

The fact that Neanderthals in Western Europe were nearly extinct, but then recovered long before they came into contact with modern humans came as a complete surprise to us. This indicates that the Neanderthals may have been more sensitive to the dramatic climate changes that took place in the last Ice Age than was previously thought."

But paleoanthropologists believe it wasn’t necessarily the cold that killed them. Neanderthals were just as adapted to icy climates as we are, if not more so: their stocky bodies and short limbs, clothed in fur hides and leather, should have dealt with the temperature drop. Instead, scientists suggest it was the knock-on effect climate change had on food that sealed their fate. As temperatures dropped, the lush forests of Europe degraded into sparse plains and steppes. Large herbivores like mammoths and bison were forced to flee south.

In these new environments, the Neanderthals soon found their previous hunting methods to be ineffective. Clubbing and stabbing works well when ambushing solitary prey in a forest, but doesn’t really hold up when chasing herds in an open desert. Their hunting tools worked best at close range and there's no evidence to suggest Neanderthals developed projectile weapons or traps.

Speaking to National Geographic News, Cambridge geologist Tjeerd van Andel hypothesised this inflexibility in their hunting patterns led to their extinction.

This is what made it impossible for the Neanderthals to survive. With less food, they became more susceptible to illness, reproduced more slowly, starvation became more of a factor, and the population died out very, very slowly."

But these researchers were assuming Neanderthals were dependent on meat for their sustenance, which we now know is false. The discovery of veg in the fecal fossils shows that Neanderthals were not the carnivorous beasts we used to think they were. Climate change may well have hampered their development, but the precise mechanisms will have to be rethought.

Photo: Getty
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Are cats solid or liquid? 13 of the best winners of the Ig Nobel prize

This satirical awards ceremony has celebrated unusual contributions to science for 27 years. 

Every year, the Ig Nobel Prize Committee hands out ten awards. A parody of the Nobel Prize, it recognises some of the most whimsical contributions to science. 

Categories include psychology, fluid dynamics and chemical engineering, much like the real Nobel Prizes, but change year to year. Its name is a pun on the word ignoble.

Studies that won prizes this year include a paper which discovered which part of the brain creates repulsion to cheese, a report on the effects of human blood in the diet of hairy-legged vampire bats, and research explaining why old men have big ears (gravity). The winners are just the latest in 27 years of the award. Here are 13 of the most head-scratching and unique winners:

1. Original conspiracy theories

Erich Von Daniken won the Literature Prize in 1991, the first year of the Ig Nobel awards, for his book Chariots of the Godswhich suggested human life takes its origins from ancient aliens that came to earth. Originally published in 1968, the book imagines that many ancient civilisations demonstrated higher scientific abilities than was possible given the limitations of their time, so aliens must have come to Earth and transmitted the knowledge to make human progress possible. 

2. The Antichrist from the East

Robert Faid, a mathematician, invested a huge amount of time in calculating the exact odds of whether Mikhail Gorbachev, the final leader of the Soviet Union, is the Antichrist. (The exact odds are 710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1, if you’re curious).

3. Refined pigeons 

Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto and Masumi Wakita successfully trained several pigeons to discriminate between Picasso’s paintings and Monet’s paintings, a skill that some humans might still be struggling with. 

4. Lovesick

Four scientists at the University of Pisa discovered that the biochemical basis of romantic love might not be all that different from the biochemical basis of neuroticism and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as they observed the multiple ways that platelet serotonin was transported around various sections of the brain. 

5. Hell is closer than we think 

Dr. Jack Van Impe and Rexella Van Impe carried out research which demonstrated that one of the universe’s great mysteries, black holes, fulfil the theological and technical requirements to be the location of hell itself.

6. Feathery feelings 

Stefano Ghirlanda, Liselotte Jansson, and Magnus Enquist of Stockholm University demonstrated that our flightless friends may be no different to us – in that chickens prefer beautiful humans. Chickens were more likely to react to pictures of faces that were deemed more conventionally attractive.

7. Creative (non) fiction

This went to a whole group of people in Nigeria, the internet entrepreneurs who used e-mail to introduce many innocent fraud victims around the world to “a cast of rich characters – General Sani Abacha, Barriste Jon A Mbeki Esq”, who find themselves in need of a loan and rely on the generosity of strangers to access their own immense fortunes. 

8. Say Cheese 

Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commenwealth Scientific and Research Organisation did all the legwork and found the exact number of photographs that you have to take in order to ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed. 

9. A girl's best friends 

Three scientists at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México were able to create a girl’s best friend, diamonds, from her other best friend, tequila. They did this by heating tequila at very high temperatures to turn it into a gas. They then heated the gas further to break it into solid crystals that had the same composition as pure diamonds. 

10. Swearing is good for you 

Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston of Keele University finally proved that there’s a scientific basis for the belief that swearing relieves pain. It may have something to do with how swearing can nullify the typical fight-or-flight response to pain, among other reasons.

11. Beer goggles

Five scientists, Laurent Begue, Brad Bushman, Oulman Zerhouni, Baptiste Subra and Medhi Ourabah, confirmed that “beauty is in the eye of the beer holder” ie that if you’re drunk, you’re more likely to think you’re attractive.

12. More than a pet rock 

Mark Avis, Sarah Forbes and Shelagh Fergon were able to use a sales and marketing perspective to ascertain the potential personalities of various kinds of rocks, by interviewing focus groups who said what they believed the rocks could be like. Some rocks (particularly the more fetching ones) were described as "classy, feminine", while others were seen more as "a hippy, someone who believes in star signs and whatnot". 

13. The internet's favorite animal 

Marc-Antoine Fardin sought to answer the age old question: cats – liquid or solid? Apparently, they're both. (Fardin admits there’s much more research to be done). 

A full list of every year's winners can be found here