Dan Murphy: Rotten to the Bone

Not much firsthand data is available on how our prehistoric ancestors lived; sadly, there was no YouTube 250,000 years ago. But new research suggests what they ate was seriously primitive. ( freeimages.com )

Not much firsthand data is available on how our prehistoric ancestors lived; sadly, there was no YouTube 250,000 years ago. But new research suggests what they ate was seriously primitive.

Of all the illustrations of prehistoric humans, none surpasses the iconic image of the proverbial caveman: A squat, hairy creature, with shaggy hair, ape-like features and barely enough motor skills to clench a sharpened wooden spear.

Based on how pop culture portrays such prehistoric humans as Neanderthals, it’s hard for us moderns to imagine that their lives involved anything other than hunting, eating, copulating and running in fear from such ruthless predators as saber tooth tigers.

Indeed, mainstream research has suggested that Neanderthals consumed what could charitably called The Ultra-Carnivore Diet, with as much as three-quarters of their nutrients coming from animal flesh.

That would put those cave creatures on a par with such meat-eating carnivores as polar bears and hyenas, according to Kimberly Foecke, an anthropologist and doctoral candidate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and author of an intriguing article on Eos.com titled, “Neanderthals Likely Ate Rotten Meat.”

Whoa … and you thought squatting in a darkened cave wearing only a fur loincloth while gnawing on a hunk of mammoth meat would be the worst part of a caveperson’s day.

Not if Foecke’s theory proves to be correct.

She aims to prove that these prehistoric members of Homo neanderthalensis ate a more “varied” diet, shall we say, that wasn’t limited only to freshly butchered hunks of meat.

“Neanderthals were quite similar to humans,” Foecke told Eos.com, the Earth & Space Science website, noting that it would be “impossible for a human to survive” on a diet of mostly meat. Indeed, recent research analyzing the plaque found on the teeth of Neanderthal skulls suggests that they “consumed more plants than previously thought,” the article explained.

That makes sense, if only because it takes a whole heck of a lot less energy, and results in significantly fewer casualties, to collect edible leaves, roots and berries than it does to surround, slaughter and slice up any of prehistoric animals that roamed the Earth 300,000 years ago.

Especially when it all had to be done with nothing more than sticks and stones.

An issue of isotopes

But why were they supposedly eating putrefied meat? Why would a race of humans allegedly evolved enough to survive for hundreds of thousands of years end up subsisting on meat that was way past its prehistoric pull date?

Foecke’s research involves measuring the ratios of various isotopes of nitrogen, which change as meat begins to deteriorate. To approximate the status of what a Neanderthal family might hunker down with around the fire at dinnertime, she “aged” a batch of steaks in a greenhouse at the university, then sampled calculated the concentration of such isotopes as 15N, which increases as meat tissue deteriorates.

That explains the “how” of her research, but what I wanted to know was “why?” Were Neanderthals forced to eat rotten meat, like hyenas or vultures, just to survive? Or is there another explanation?

We only have clues at this point. One explanation was evident as Foecke’s aging steaks began to age. By the second week , she told Eos.com, “the outside of the steaks began to resemble beef jerky, and the smell of rotting flesh began to diminish.”

More to the point, Herve Bocherens, a paleobiologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany (who was not involved in the research), theorized that Neanderthals likely altered their food “by aging, cooking or some other modification.

“So far, only the impact of cooking practices has been tested,” he explained.

Which leaves the field of “modification by deterioration” wide open for researchers such as Foecke to collect enough data to confirm speculation that Neanderthals’ entrée preferences did indeed range from medium to rare to rotten.

If true, it would confirm one assertion about modern man: As a species, we HAVE evolved, at least in terms of what’s on the menu at mealtime.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.