Omnivorous Neanderthals

The most recent missed Brian Thomas article was called Neandertals Apparently Knew Medicinal Plants. The primary subject was a Naturwissenschaften paper from August called Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus (available open-access, at least for the rest of the month), which examined hardened dental plaque (calculus) from Sidrón Cave Neanderthals and the microfossils and molecules embedded within it:

Our results provide the first molecular evidence for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and bitumen or oil shale and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods. We also offer the first evidence for the use of medicinal plants by a Neanderthal individual.

The first conclusion that Thomas draws is the same as Jeff Tomkins did a couple of weeks ago, namely that Neanderthals were human. As such, the same response can be made as then: while it’s true that any reasonable definition of ‘human’ not arbitrarily restricted to what we currently call Homo sapiens would need to include Neanderthals, and even that a case can be made for the idea that the distinction between H. sapiens and Neanderthals in fact lies at the subspecies level, there are still differences (primarily morphological) between the two groups. The creationist narrative being pushed is that Neanderthals are just another group descended from Adam, and their claims that they were “fully human” and “identical” to modern humans – both true if you use certain definitions both of ‘human’ and ‘identical’ – are not so much contrary to the current scientific view as an attempt to undermine it. The appeal of saying ‘we’re right, the scientists were wrong’ to the creationists, no matter how accurate that really is, cannot be understated.

Thomas’ article opens:

The Institute for Creation Research has long identified Neandertals as fully human. But for decades, evolutionists had labeled this extinct variety of humankind as sub-human, alleging that they had eaten mostly meat.

The claim that the ICR “has long identified Neandertals as fully human” is cited for evidence to a 1975 Duane Gish article which merely asserts that “Neanderthal Man [is] now known to be as human as you and I,” and says no more on the matter. It does seem to be true that the ICR has consistently taken the “bonafide member of Homo sapiens” line, and it’s also true that there has more generally been a persistent tendency to say the polar opposite. Nevertheless I must question the logic behind anyone using meat-eating for that purpose. The Inuit, for one, famously have a very meat-rich diet – that doesn’t make them ‘sub-human,’ whatever a certain infamous textbook would have you believe about them. So it might be true that “evolutionists” once called Neanderthals “sub-human,” and that they thought that the Neanderthals ate “mostly meat,” but these are unrelated facts. If anyone really did connect the two, saying that Neanderthals were sub-human because they ate a lot of meat, then they probably shouldn’t have.

Thomas’ chosen example is this:

A 1970 book titled Early Man illustrated a migrating Neandertal family wearing animal skins and carrying clubs. Part of the caption reads, “At left a man is carrying small game for provisions—a rabbit and a waterfowl—indicating that Neanderthalers hunted other creatures besides cave bears and woolly rhinoceroces.” The book doesn’t mention Neandertals eating plants for food or for medicine. But a recent forensic analysis of Neandertal teeth takes a bite out of this old evolutionary story.

Judging by this paper it may be that they simply had no evidence even of basic herbivory in Neanderthals at that time, though it may have been assumed and could be implied somewhere in the book. Thomas cites his quote to page 132 of the book, authored by Francis Clark Howell, if you are able to check it.

Ignoring the ‘sub-human’ part, Thomas seems to imply that it was formerly believed without good evidence that Neanderthals were primarily carnivorous, and that this new research completely overturns that view at a stroke. Neither point is true. For one, as this paper says there had been good reason to suspect that Neanderthals mostly ate a lot of meat:

Large numbers of animal bones found in association with Neanderthal artefacts led to the assumption that they were predominantly meat-eaters. This view has been reinforced by stable isotope analyses as the δ15N values of Neanderthal bone collagen are consistent with a meat-rich diet. Most isotope studies are from temperate Europe since few sites in warmer regions have sufficient collagen surviving for analysis, but a δ15N value recently obtained from El Sidrón, northern Spain, is consistent with earlier findings.

So meat eating was based on actual evidence. But it’s also not true that the paper appears in isolation as evidence for “greater dietary breadth”:

The recent identification of the TAS2R38 bitter taste perception gene in a Neanderthal individual from El Sidrón is an indicator of an ability to include plants in the diet as bitterness can warn of toxins. The survival of actual plant remains within Neanderthal sites is rare; however, evidence for edible grass seeds at Amud Cave, Israel, charred legumes at Kebara Cave, Israel, and charred nuts at Gorham’s Cave, Gibralter suggest these were eaten. Starch granules found embedded in dental calculus from one Neanderthal individual from the site of Shanidar in Iraq and two individuals from Spy in Belgium also suggests a plant component in the diet. Furthermore, based on a comparison with the use of similar items from ethnographic contexts, Sandgathe and Hayden suggest that pointed artefacts of bone and wood found on several Neanderthal sites may have been used to obtain edible inner bark.

And so on. Thomas quotes from the article, and then says:

Neandertals ate starchy foods for nutrition and plants that provided medicinal benefits, too? The study authors wrote that these ancients “had a sophisticated knowledge of their natural surroundings which included the ability to select and use certain plants.”

After that quote, the paper adds:

Although the extent of their botanical knowledge and their ability to self-medicate must of course remain open to speculation, the fact that higher primates have some understanding of the flora within their environment, and the extensive evidence for self-medication within the animal kingdom, would surely make it surprising if the Neanderthals did not also share such knowledge.

Not quite what Thomas has been getting at is it, if other animals do the same thing? The use of ‘medicinal plants’ that is being repeatedly alluded to is largely based on some of the plants that were found to have been eaten having little nutritional content but well known medicinal benefits. That it was intentional seems to be the best explanation.

Thomas then concludes the ‘Neanderthals are human’ half of the article like so:

Whoever suggested that Neandertals were anything less than fully human must be motivated by dogma, because decades of forensics analyses have demonstrated their humanity ad nauseum. For example, they used musical instruments and jewelry, and their DNA was fully human.

Thomas seems to be projecting here, because his conclusions are definitely “motivated by dogma.” The jewellery claim is cited to this paper, while for the DNA one he gives the original 2010 Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome. Where that paper makes the “fully human” claim I am yet to discover.

The second part of Thomas’ article is more obviously flawed. He concocts an argument relating to population growth – if the Neanderthals ate starchy food, he asks, why didn’t civilisation arise there and then?

Importantly, Neandertals eating starch refutes the standard excuse that evolutionists use to explain why human population burgeoned starting only about 5,000 years ago, after mankind had supposedly existed for over a hundred thousand years. The authors of the Naturwissenschaften study began their report with doctrinaire fare, asserting that “Neanderthals disappeared sometime between 30,000 and 24,000 years ago.” If fully human beings have been alive for 30,000 years or more, what caused them to wait for 25,000 years before their historical population growth?

The “doctrinal flare” is cited to a 2006 paper discussing the late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe – this ‘doctrine’ is evidence based. Thomas claims:

For evolutionists, calories from starch in grain were supposedly the key.

He gives a footnote by way of explanation:

For example, one study said, “What, in the agricultural economy, had an impact on human biology that ultimately determined the growth of the population? The increase in natural maternal fertility, through a reduction in the birth interval, is mainly determined by the energy balance and the relative metabolic load. It implies a positive return of the postpartum energy balance, which occurred earlier in farming than in foraging societies due to the energy gain from the high-calorie food of sedentary farmers (wheat, lentils, peas, maize, rice, and millet) compared to the low-calorie food of mobile foragers (mainly game), coupled with a decrease in the energy expenditure of carrying infants. This signal is interpreted as the signature of a major demographic shift in human history and is known as the Neolithic Demographic Transition (NDT) or, synonymously, the Agricultural Demographic Transition.” See Bocquet-Appel, J.-P. 2011. When the World’s Population Took Off: The Springboard of the Neolithic Demographic Transition. Science. 333 (6042): 560-561.

The key point here is when it says “in the agricultural economy,” for while Neanderthal foraging exercises may have produced “starchy food” that doesn’t mean they had agriculture. You don’t just need quality of food to promote population growth, you need quantity. Starch or not, Neanderthals were in no position to start civilisation tens of thousands of years early.

One of the reasons that agriculture developed when it did was because of the climatic changes brought about by the end of the last glacial period. Before that there simply wasn’t a climate amenable to the lifestyle. Europe especially was not suitable for growing crops, which would have been particularly problematic for a group of humans living in what is now Spain.

Thomas’ article concludes after a few more paragraphs of this, talking about how “Biblical history” is better than “an ever-changing man-made history substitute” etc. You get the idea.

In summary: Neanderthals are ‘human’ – but we knew that. Neanderthals ate at least some plants (in what proportion relative to meat I don’t know), and used medicinal plants – but we could have guessed that. But at this time neither H. sapiens nor Neanderthals, nor likely any one of the several other human groups living at the time, were in the position to start domesticating plants, growing population, and booting up civilisation early. Thomas is very wrong about that, at least, and that’s the important part here.

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7 thoughts on “Omnivorous Neanderthals

  1. The thing which really irritates me about the “fully human” line is that they treat “human” as some kind of physical quality which neanderthals had obtained. In reality its an ephemeral sliding scale, with neanderthals slap bang in the middle of a grey area.

  2. I’m sure I read somewhere of a structure found in the Middle East that may have been religious and linking the story of the “Fall” with the change from hunter gatherer to farmer tied to the land and seasons – the “thorns and thistles” and the “sweat of his brow” of the Genesis story.
    I’m sure I read and I can’t remember where or when.
    Does it ring any bells with anyone here?

  3. I was going to comment on Thomas being motivated by dogma, but I see you included that in your post.

    • Did Adam Benton see my recent message(s) to AiG about their ‘Lucy’ fraud (reproduced at EvoAnth)?

    • I have seen what you wrote, but have been avoiding the issue until I can finish by responses. Unfortunately a plethora of work is keeping me from doing so.

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