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.)