Hunting and Diet

Neandertals were hunters and gatherers that lived during the Middle and  Upper Paleolithic. Their life was rough and rigorous. It was so harsh that their average life span was from forty to forty-five years of age. Many aspects of their behavior contributed to this. One of these was the way in which these hominids hunted their sustenance. Neandertals participated in close range kills, meaning that they were literally in less than a foot's proximity of their prey when they attacked it. They hunted with wooden spears, hafted with stone tips, and thrusted them into animals a few inches away. In order to do this, Neandertals must have had outstanding stamina. However, it was due to this close combat with larger game that they gained several injuries that left permanent tell tale marks of pain on their bones. For example, forty-years-old was an elderly age for a Neandertal. Their forty years would be the equivalent of our sixty or eighty years.

Another hunting technique used by these ancestors was to drive  a large herd of animals over a cliff, or elevated surface, while their comrades awaited at the bottom to slaughter the animal or animals. The carcasses would be carved up and carried back to their living camps for the rest of the clan. An example of this was found at the La Quina site in France, where archaeologists found piled up bones "of bovids, horses, and reindeer beneath a steep cliff as the aftermath of a 'cliff drive,' a cooperative and therefore planned hunting technique" (Shreeve 1995:160).

Of course some paleoanthropologist do disagree with the fact that Neandertals were capable of hunting for their own food. Louis Binford, more commonly know as "the Father of New Archaeology," happens to be one of these individuals. He believes that Neandertals did more  scavenging than they did hunting. Where did he get this assumption? Well, after analyzing evidence from the Combe Grenal site, in the Dordogne region of France, he claimed that Neandertals hunted medium-sized animals. such as reindeer and red deer, but that they continued to scavenge larger animals, like horses and wild cattle. As a result, Binford stated that the main staple of Neandertals "was not flesh at all. Judging from the traces of pollen left on flake tools at the site, it was aquatic plants plucked from the canyon streams. Cattails to be exact" (Shreeve 1995:160). There only seems to be one problem with Binford's interpretation. The site he examined was extremely close to an aquatic resource. The Dordogne River happens to be right at the site he examined. Therefore the was an bias in the interpretation. Basically this means that Binford's theory cannot be applied to all Neandertals.

There is little evidence of Neandertals planning. It appears that they were spontaneously setting out to hunt and forage, relying only on "running into food" during the day. Erik Trinkaus, a professor at  Washington Univerity, St. Louis, analyzed Neandertal thigh bones and concluded that they "were much more accustomed to moving continuously and  in all directions, side to side, up terrain and down, in an irregular pattern quite unlike the straight-on gait of modern hunter-gatherers" (Shreeve 1995:156). Binford feels that "Neandertals might have lacked what he calls 'planning depth,' the ability to anticipate future events and future availability of food. They could not predict patterns in a dynamic and changing landscape" (Johanson, Johanson, and Edgar 1994:263). Binford specifically uses salmon as an example of rich food exploited by modern people. It was plentiful during the Paleolithic spring-time when Cro-Magnon greatly gathered it), in the rivers of southwestern France, an area densely inhabited ny Neandertals.

This is quite revealing when looking at the Neandertal human diet. Not only did they neglect taking advantage of the abundance of salmon, which was highly nutritional, but evidence indicates that they "failed to exploit the annual reindeer migrations, an even more abundant, if less predictable, source of protein" (Shreeve 1995:155). According to Mary Ursula Brennen, an anthropologist at New York University, Neandertals suffered from nutritional stress. She stated that if people do not receive sufficient nutrients in the first seven years of their lives, their teeth do not fully develop, a condition known as hypoplasia (Rudavsky 1991:55). Brennen tested more than 300 Neandertal remains for this disease and found that 40% suffered from this ailment. This indicates that edible resources were definitely scarce.

Andre Mariotti, a geochemist at the Marie Curie University in Paris, contradicts Binford's cattail's theory by using chemical analysis to show ate little other than meat. He derived his thesis from testing Neandertal bone collagen, checking their levels of carbon-13 and nitrogen-15. There is more N-15 in carnivores than herbivores and  C-13 ratios directly reflect corresponding isotope ratios in plants, giving a host of clues about the types of plants in the diet. From his results, Mariotti indicated that Neandertal "dietary habits lay somewhere between those of the wolf and the fox--the wolf eats almost entirely meat but the fox gets some of its protein from occasional meals of fruits, grain, and even tree leaves" (Dorozynski and Anderson 1991:520).

Another example of this dietary behavior is that Neandertals apparently remained all year in the same area, and were not seasonal followers, like their successors. At the Near East site of Kebara, a Neandertal mixed selection of refuse bones were discovered in a dump. When they were examined and identified, they proved that, like the Neandertals in the Dordogne, who remained in their areas year-round, "the Kebaran people were hunting and scavenging whatever food was walking or flying around in the immediate vicinity" (Shreeve 1995:185). These were medium and small sized animals like deer, horses, tortoise, birds, and gazelle. This evidence points to regionalistic individuals, who remained in an area of relatively plenty, rather than migrating seasonally in pursuit of a particular kind of game.

Staying in one area for lengthy amounts of time posed many threats for the Neandertals. The most dangerous being depleting their food supply, which meant that each meal became more difficult to obtain (Allman 1996:54). This caused difficulties such as bouts with starvation and malnourishment.

Neandertals were one of the first human groups to have the ability to decide how they ate. They did this by controlling the use of fire and, more than likely, cooked their food. Neandertals also used fire to produce warmth to survive freezing Ice Age temperatures. Although they knew how to construct cooking hearths, they "did not know how to coax more heat from a fireplace by lining it with stones or digging ventilation channels" (Shreeve 1995:184). Unlike Cro-Magnon Man, who heated and placed them beside his body to keep warm, there is no evidence of fire-cracked rocks at Neandertal sites to indicated that they acted likewise. They probably huddled close to fires to stay warm during cold nights.

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