Neanderthals Craved Bison, Mammoths

By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

Aug. 16, 2005 — Neanderthals and early humans apparently were surrounded by small prey, but instead mostly ate woolly mammoths and other big game, according to two recent studies, like a modern individual who lives on a chicken farm but rarely eats poultry in favor of beef.

The findings suggest that Neanderthals and our prehistoric relatives lived in organized communities that banded together early on to form hunting parties that took down large game.

The study concerning early humans focused on the 16,000-year-old "Magdalenian woman" skeleton from a site called Saint-Germain-la-Rivière in France.

"This woman can be considered as an early ancestor of today's French population," said Dorothée Drucker, who led the study.

She told Discovery News, "From our calculations, meat of bison was predominantly consumed by this woman. Marine food, such as salmon, and small herbivores (such as) reindeer and saiga antelope were limited in her diet."

Drucker's husband, Hervé Bocherens, led the Neanderthal research. Bocherens and his colleagues studied 35,000-year-old Neanderthal remains from the Saint Césaire site, also in France. They concluded that woolly rhinoceros and woolly mammoth dominated the Neanderthal's diet.

The two studies were published in last month's Journal of Human Evolution.

Both Drucker, a former Canadian Wildlife Service anthropologist now based in France, and Bocherens, a University of Montpellier evolutionary scientist, studied samples of bone collagen from the early human and Neanderthal skeletons.

Bone collagen contains isotopes, or atoms of different mass, from carbon and nitrogen that were in consumed proteins. By measuring, dating and then comparing isotope values to those of plants and other animals, scientists can link the bone collagen proteins to their meat source.

The researchers had ample data for comparison, as the Magdalenian woman was found with the remains of saiga antelope, reindeer, bison, horses, red deer and wolves.

Antelope remains were plentiful and did show signs of butchering but, since the isotope analysis reveals the dominant source of protein, the researchers believe the woman favored a nice bit of bison over an antelope steak.