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Study provides insights into the lives of Neanderthals

An international team of researchers, led by the University of Southampton has provided a fascinating insight into the hunting habits and diets of Neanderthals and other prehistoric humans living in western Europe nearly 100,000 years ago. 

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), analyzed chemical properties trapped within tooth enamel to reconstruct how these ancient people survived off the land surrounding the Almonda Cave system in central Portugal.

What the research revealed

The study revealed that Neanderthals in the region hunted fairly large animals across vast expanses of land, while humans inhabiting the same area tens of thousands of years later relied on smaller creatures within a territory half the size. These discoveries were made possible by analyzing strontium isotopes found in rocks. 

Over millions of years, strontium isotopes gradually change due to radioactive processes, resulting in variations depending on the age of the underlying geology. As rocks erode, these isotopic “fingerprints” are passed on to plants through sediments and eventually make their way up the food chain, ending up in tooth enamel.

How the study was done

In this groundbreaking study, archaeologists employed a technique that lasers samples of enamel and measures thousands of individual strontium isotope readings along the growth of a tooth crown. The team examined samples from two Neanderthals dating back around 95,000 years and a more recent human who lived approximately 13,000 years ago during the Magdalenian period.

The scientists also analyzed isotopes in the tooth enamel of animals found within the cave system. In addition to strontium, they measured oxygen isotopes, which exhibit seasonal variations from summer to winter. This allowed the researchers to not only determine the areas where the animals roamed but also the seasons in which they were available for hunting.

The analysis showed that Neanderthals, who targeted larger animals, potentially hunted wild goats in the summer, while horses, red deer, and an extinct form of rhinoceros were available all year round within about 30 kilometers of the cave. 

By contrast, the Magdalenian individual displayed a different subsistence pattern, with a seasonal movement of about 20 kilometers from the Almonda caves to the banks of the Tagus River. Their diet included rabbits, red deer, wild goats, and freshwater fish.

The research team estimated the territories of the two different human groups, revealing stark differences. Neanderthals sourced their food across an area of approximately 600 square kilometers, while the Magdalenian individuals occupied a significantly smaller territory of about 300 square kilometers.

Authors of the study share their insights

Dr. Bethan Linscott, the lead author of the study, who conducted the research at the University of Southampton and now works at the University of Oxford, explained the significance of tooth enamel in understanding the dietary habits of ancient humans: 

“Tooth enamel forms incrementally, and so represents a time series that records the geological origin of the food an individual ate. Using laser ablation, we can measure the variation of strontium isotopes over the two or three years it takes for the enamel to form,” said Dr. Linscott.

“By comparing the strontium isotopes in the teeth with sediments collected at different locations in the region, we were able to map the movements of the Neanderthals and the Magdalenian individual. The geology around the Almonda caves is highly variable, making it possible to spot movement of just a few kms.”

“This study shows just how much science has changed our understanding of archaeology in the past decade,” said study co-author Professor Alistair Pike, who supervised the research.

“Previously, the lives and behaviours of past individuals was limited to what we could infer from marks on their bones or the artefacts they used. Now, using the chemistry of bones and teeth, we can begin to reconstruct individual life histories, even as far back as the Neanderthals.”

“The difference in the territory size between the Neanderthal and Magdalenian individuals is probably related to population density. With a relatively low population, Neanderthals were free to roam further to target large prey species, such as horses, without encountering rival groups,” said study co-author Professor João Zilhão of the University of Lisbon, who led the excavation of the Almonda caves.

“By the Magdalenian period, an increase in population density reduced available territory, and human groups had moved down the food chain to occupy smaller territories, hunting mostly rabbits and catching fish on a seasonal basis.”

More about Neanderthals

Neanderthals, also known as Homo neanderthalensis, were a species of archaic humans that lived in Eurasia from around 400,000 to 40,000 years ago. They were closely related to modern humans, Homo sapiens, with DNA evidence suggesting that the two species shared a common ancestor approximately 600,000 years ago. Neanderthals and Homo sapiens even interbred, as evidenced by the presence of Neanderthal DNA in the genomes of modern non-African human populations.

Appearance and Anatomy

Neanderthals had a distinct anatomy, which included a more robust build, shorter limbs, and a larger cranial capacity compared to modern humans. They had prominent brow ridges, a low and elongated skull, a more protruding midface, and a receding chin. These features allowed them to adapt to the cold climates of Ice Age Europe.

Tools and Technology

Neanderthals were skilled toolmakers and used a technology called the Mousterian culture, which involved the creation of various stone tools such as scrapers, points, and hand axes. They also utilized other materials like wood and bone. There is evidence that they used fire for cooking, warmth, and protection.


Neanderthals were primarily carnivorous, with a diet that included large mammals like mammoths, reindeer, and bison. However, recent studies have also found evidence of plant consumption, suggesting a more varied diet than previously believed. They were proficient hunters and likely used tools and cooperative strategies to bring down large prey.

Social Behavior

While Neanderthals were once thought to be less advanced than modern humans in terms of their cognitive and social abilities, recent evidence suggests they may have been more similar to us than previously believed. They buried their dead, possibly with grave goods, which could indicate a belief in an afterlife or at least a level of respect for the deceased. There is also evidence of them caring for their sick and injured, indicating empathy and social bonds.

Language and Communication

The exact nature of Neanderthal language remains a topic of debate among researchers. However, anatomical evidence suggests that they had a similar vocal tract to modern humans and possibly possessed the FOXP2 gene, which is associated with speech and language development. This suggests that they may have had some form of language or communication, though its complexity is still unknown.


The exact cause of Neanderthal extinction remains unclear. Hypotheses include competition with or extermination by Homo sapiens, climate change, disease, or a combination of these factors. Recent evidence indicates that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens coexisted for several thousand years, and interbreeding between the two species may have contributed to the Neanderthal gene pool’s absorption into that of Homo sapiens.

In summary, Neanderthals were a species of archaic humans that lived in Eurasia during the last Ice Age. They were skilled hunters, toolmakers, and may have had complex social structures and communication. The exact cause of their extinction is still debated, but it likely involved a combination of factors, including interactions with Homo sapiens.


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