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. 

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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.