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Ever Wonder What a Neanderthal Considered a Delicacy?

I suppose “Neanderthal delicacy” may sound like an oxymoron. Most people think of Neanderthals and other ancient people as cave men, brutes capable of little more than smashing and grunting. To the extent you’ve ever thought about what they ate, you probably assumed it was, well, whatever they could get their dirty hands on.

Or maybe you remember The Clan of the Cave Bear, the 1980 bestseller that helped shape Neanderthals in the popular imagination. In the book, a Homo sapiens girl named Ayla is adopted by Neanderthals who communicate mainly through hand signals and seem incapable of learning.

Yet the more we learn about our ancient cousins, the more sophisticated we find them to be. Amazing work on Neanderthal genetics by Svante Pääbo has found that they possessed a gene called FOXP2 that is key to speech in modern humans, raising the question of whether Neanderthals had language. They may even have been capable of abstract thinking and art.

Now, a new study suggests that the Paleolithic crowd had its own version of fine dining, unsettling as the choice of fare may be. It appears that baby elephants may have been a particular delicacy—basically, pachyderm veal.

Most studies of ancient diets have focused on simply figuring out what people ate, not what they liked. But Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University and his graduate student Hagar Reshef wondered if there was any way to make a reasonable guess about the tastes of early hominins. They report their findings in an upcoming issue of Quaternary International.

“The direct investigation of taste preference in Paleolithic times is impossible,” says Reshef, but there’s “plenty of circumstantial evidence.”

First, the scientists point to recent evidence that Neanderthals did have a sense of taste. Work by Carles Lalueza-Fox found taste-related genes in Neanderthals, specifically for bitter tastes, that could have shaped their food preferences. The gene varied, as it does in modern humans. “What seems clear is that keeping a wide range of taste perception was key in hominin groups,” Lalueaza-Fox says.

As for what they ate, the butchered bones of mammoths and ancient elephant species, and particularly young elephants, are fairly common in Paleolithic archaeological sites around the world. In some cases, such as the Middle Pleistocene sites Gesher Benot Ya’akov in Israel and Notarchirico in Italy, the skulls of young elephants appear to have been dismantled, perhaps to eat the brain.

Young elephants would presumably be easier to kill than large ones, which could explain why more young ones were eaten. But even young elephants aren’t exactly easy to capture and kill, leaving Reshef wondering whether they were also hunted as a preferred food—because they’re tasty.

That raises one obvious question: Are baby elephants tasty? Here, Reshef and Barkai looked at the historical record and modern-day hunter-gatherers. A 1967 study of the Liangula hunters in East Kenya reported that they preferred young elephants because they tasted better, and reports from other groups followed suit, with the general consensus being that elephants, and especially the young, taste sweet and fatty.

The team also checked out the nutritional value and quality of elephant meat. Studies of the biochemical composition of fat tissue reveals a high nutritional value for young elephants compared with adults.

We can’t wind back time to ask a Neanderthal what he liked, but it seems plausible that they put some effort into finding food they liked, and that baby elephant was on the list. “I would say that both the vulnerability and taste are relevant,” Reshef says.

Why would we care what Neanderthals or other hominins liked to nosh on? They sharpened their flints while dreaming of slicing into baby elephant; I wait in line for two hours to eat fancy ramen noodle soup. To each his own, right?

Perhaps. But it’s also part of understanding what makes us human.

“I believe that taste preference in ancient times was a motivating power in human evolution by pushing creative and technological abilities,” says Reshef.

Just think about that for a second. The quest for deliciousness: a motivating power in human evolution.

I could buy it. Given how much human time, creativity, and effort go into food today (Exhibit A: any Whole Foods store), it’s easy to believe that we are who we are, at least just a little bit, because we have been working for so long on new ways to perfect the snack. Thank you, sense of taste.

(A special thank you to my keen-eyed colleague Mark Strauss for pointing out the elephant study.)

11 thoughts on “Ever Wonder What a Neanderthal Considered a Delicacy?

  1. I am not one who necessarily regards neanderthal as stumbling grunting brutes. As a matter of fact, I don’t know anyone who believes it. Obviously neandertal was good at being neanderthal for over 200,000 years. I also have no doubt that neanderthal had food preferences, but this is not a logical argument as to intelligence. Many vertebrates have food preferences–even vultures. I’ve constantly been taken by the fact that turkey vultures and black vultures have a special fancy for road-killed armadillos. A large road-killed deer will oftentimes attract several vultures but a ten pound armadillo will frequently attack half a dozen or more.

  2. While an association has been established between FOXP2 and speech , this has little direct bearing upon human language and the complex set of behaviours which stem there-from.

    It is a very common error to conflate language with speech.

    Hardly surprising, since this is a long established tradition to which we have become accustomed. Even the word “language” is, of course, derived from “tongue”.

    In the light of modern science, however, it becomes clear that this simplistic notion is far from the truth, and speech must be regarded as playing a secondary role in the evolution of human language.

    The language capability of we snoutless apes is by no means limited to vocalizations. In fact, language of our kind, which can be accurately defined as the import, export and external storage of imagination, co-evolved with the greatly increased innervation of the hands triggered by largely obligate tool-use.

    The earliest known examples of externally stored imagination other than tools per se having been described as “stone doodles”

    Even today, written (or keyboard entered) language is the primary large-scale mode, with vocalizations being more commonly used for trivia.

    The origins of human language are discussed at length in chapter 23 of “The Intricacy Generator: Pushing Chemistry and Geometry Uphill”. Now available as 336 page illustrated paperback from Amazon, etc.

  3. Neanderthal people existed in small groups, according to the available evidence. They were distributed across Europe and Asia on a time basis, if not necessarily a coexisting spacial distribution. This means that there should be no assumption of a common language any more than it should be assumed that remote Amazonian indians can understand Ghetto-talk. What does this have to do with food choices? Everything. These groups undoubtedly made choices based on taboos, upon availability, upon maturity of taste, and upon familiarity. That is, they may not have eaten specific substances because to do so would have either broken with tradition or caused an undesirable effect — like DEATH. My taboo is to avoid pork. On the other hand, a child raised with a particular food will become accustomed to it and may tend to prefer it. When I was in Basic Training, I remember a Southern Boy gobbling down grits as the best he’d ever tasted; me — I couldn’t even force a mouthful. Of course, IF grits was the only food available, and if I was hungry enough, I’m sure I could learn to (gulp!) like it. Further, tastes do become sated if the same thing is eaten regularly. Witness our “finicky” pets. They may eagerly devour something presented to them at first, but after multiple feedings, turn their nose up at it. And tastes change. It has been said that the adult taste is more bitter than sweet. That may explain the popularity of coffee, for example. Or strong cheeses. When I was a kid, I hated olives. Today I wonder how I could ever have disliked them. There is no reason to believe that Neanderthal people were any different from Homo sapiens in this aspect.

  4. In Gibraltar they apparently had a taste for pigeon and oysters based on remains found there. In other areas, they also ate wild olives, pine nuts and dates. And, based on their dental calculus, they ate cooked grains. Good thing for anthropologists that, although they invented string, they had yet to develop dental floss.

  5. Briefly, I’m not a scientist, but one thing that wasn’t discussed in the article, and which I observed viewing wild, modern-day elephants in the Masai Mara, West Kenya, was that you never see a baby elephant that isn’t safely between two adult females. I can’t imagine how a Neanderthal could take out a baby elephant without first having to go through one or more adults.

  6. “They may have even been capabke of abstract thought…”

    Of course Neanderthals could speak and were capable of abstract thought! How silly to imagine they couldn’t or wouldn’t have been so capable. We now know that Neanderthals, or homo sapiens neanderthalensis, were a sub-species of modern humans. The fact that neanderthals were fully human and not inferior to other humans is evidenc3d by the fact that all non-african humans alive today have a little neanderthal dna. I myself am 3 percent neanderthal, according to my 23andme genetic testing results. This is as much neanderthal dna as if I had a great-great-great-great grandparent who was 100 pwrcent neanderthal. And last time I checked my cognitive abilities and language abilities were fine thank you very much as are the abilities of my European and Asian fellow neanderthal descendants.

    It is only the arrogance of homo sapiens sapiens that makes them imagine that our neanderthal cousins would have been inferior to us. Just because our ancestors may have wiped them out doesn’t mean they were inferior any more than other victims of genocide were inferior to their aggressors.

  7. We don’t know if Neanderthal had complex speech or was capable of what we think of as abstract thought. It does seem that skeletally identifiable H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis had similar lithic technologies up until roughly 40-50 thousand years ago. At this time, H. sapiens made a great leap forward–as demonstrated by art and beautifully crafted tools and weapons. Is it possible that H. sapiens, within his modern-appearing skull, was still undergoing neurologic innovation resulting in increasing cultural sophistication….or….is it possible that gradually H. sapiens speech [without the necessity of neurologic change] improved to a level that it was finally possible to transmit really complex thought?

  8. Regardless of our supposed technical superiority in the animal world, the Neanderthals existed on this planet twice as long as we have even been a singular species. In that time I guess they would have figured out much that their meager remains and artifacts do not tell.

  9. I would love to know why the American point of view about Neanderthals being distinct and inferior to modern humans is always written as if proved, when most of the “facts” read about in articles are nothing more than hunches and assumptions taken as fact, because they fit with deeply rooted notions in American culture about the specialness of humanity rooted even more deeply in the still very strong Religious elements in American society.

    It’s ironic that such religious notions have such a widespread impact on all American science, even among scientists who are agnostic or atheist.

    That religiously rooted notion is so ingrained in American culture, that most researchers are oblivious to the fact that the requirement to “prove” something that is obvious and virtually undeniable about another animal or about neanderthals is often motivated by the fact many feel uncomfortable with the notion that an animal or a neanderthal experienced their world similar to or the same way a human does.

    Research from around the world takes a different tact. Often they will start with the assumption that one of the easiest ways to understand other animals is to look in the mirror. We are animals, and what we want, like, enjoy, fear Etc. should be easy to extrapolate to the behavior of other animals with allowances made for their lifestyle.

    That is the opposite approach American researchers take.

    Any American researcher who does this though will face a heavy, nonstop barrage of criticism from fellow American researchers for daring to anthropomorphize, one of the biggest sins in the world of animal research in the anglophile research community, which unfortunately is dominant in most important fields.

    Fortunately the rest of the world’s research community is no longer so intimidated by American, religiously rooted expectations on science research.

    When it comes to neanderthals, American researchers seem driven to find insignificant anatomical differences between modern humans and neanderthals and declare they have proved yet again neanderthals were not humans in order to support that never proved assumption.

    American researchers are so invested in religious cultural imperatives they are often oblivious to the absurd lengths they go to in order to describe obvious human features in neanderthals as proof of nothing if the proof is used by another to decide they were human just like us.

    This way this article couches neanderthal research findings is a great example of that.

    As to why it made sense to the US anthropological community well they are some of the worst when it comes to being oblivious to how much religious notions of human specialness has influenced their efforts.

    About the only other group of researchers as guilty as they are of allowing unproved assumptions to masquerade as fact thanks to religiously rooted assumptions are animal biologists.

    For that reason, Reading papers or articles on research from non-American researchers is refreshing.

    They don’t obsessively try to find or focus on insignificant difference in order to declare neanderthals aren’t human or animals are so different from us that we should never anthropomorphize in an effort to try to understand an animals motivations even as a starting point.

    And for that reason more and more their conclusions are being taken as fact over similar results from American researchers that thanks to our bias arrive at starkly different and often wrong conclusions all to accommodate the notion that modern humans are unique and special, because.

  10. I could care less about Morales’ anti-religion Religion. I’m suspicious of all true-believers whether ‘religious’ or ‘atheist’. The article is about Neanderthal food preferences. Of course they would have food preferences as do most of the biota including ourselves. Food preferences do not make us uniquely human. In my neck of the woods I frequently have the opportunity to observe turkey vultures, black vultures, and crested caracaras at road kills. They seem to be catholic in their appetites and will readily eat skunks in full odor. Nevertheless they seem to have preferences, armadillo being at the top of their list.

    Interestingly, young humans tend to be more ‘picky’ about food than do adults although all adults continue to have preferences and some humans continue to have down-right food prejudices. I rather suspect that children, on some deep irrational level, refuse certain perfectly good foods because of unfamiliarity. Unfamiliarity breeds suspicion. Why suspicion? It may be nature’s way of minimizing poisoning. Of course some people retain these prejudices–as opposed to food preferences–into adulthood. Some people wouldn’t touch buttermilk, drink Mongolian Kumis, eat wild game, have pickled pig’s feet, eat octopus etc. under any circumstances. They won’t even try these things to determine whether or not they like them. They ‘know’ they are terrible. Were Neanderthal or other Pleistocene peoples including H. sapiens food ‘picky’ as adults? Pure speculation on my part but my guess is that food pickiness is a luxury few subsistence people could afford but individuals no doubt preferred reindeer over grilled rat. Still, they would contentedly eat rat if no caribou were available.

    Still food pickiness under limited food circumstances can be dangerous. A study was done on American POWs following the Korean War. The researchers wanted to know if their were characteristics that separated the survivors from those who died. The only separating factor that they discovered was food pickiness. Those boys who were picky about their diets before entering the Service tended to be those that died whereas those who’d eat anything placed in front of them, lived. Why? I imagine when served up with a thin gruel with fish heads floating in the ‘soup’ while in the POW camp that there were those who ate it without reservation and sucked the eyeballs off the heads. Others turned their noses up with predictable results.

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