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The Neanderthal's Cookbook: Question & Answer

Rebecca Wragg Sykes answers audience questions following her conversation with Rob Dunn on Neanderthal eating habits.

Published onAug 16, 2022
The Neanderthal's Cookbook: Question & Answer

Editors note: This publication contains a lightly edited transcript of the question and answer portion of the corresponding lecture.

Header image: Guide leaflet (1901), American Museum of Natural History (Public Domain)

Q + A:

Question: Having to do with the horses in the lake that you were talking about before, how can you tell where the water level was then, versus now? How do you make that calculation?

Rebecca: Well, the lake is not a lake anymore. It's buried under meters and meters and meters of deposits. But in terms of the level of the lake at the time, we can see that that did change through different layers. During that period where the horses were being hunted, we do believe that it was in standing water. Schöningen is a really fascinating site, and I encourage people to read about it, and there are different phases of activity there.

But during that particular phase with the horses and the spears, it does really look as if those carcasses, some of them, were in the water. Not far out in the middle of the lake, but not on the shore.

Rebecca: I don't think there is evidence for that. I don't think you can necessarily tell that at Schöningen. But at Linford there are carrion beetles for different kinds of meat, fresh meat versus weathered, and it does look as if some of it was underwater. It wasn't a massive channel, so there was some water there. This is all speculative, of course, this possible fermentation context. I'm not saying for sure that these are sites where they were doing that. But if we ask if there is any possibility in any Neanderthal sites we have, those were the ones that I would say, “maybe.”

Question: You mentioned a few tools in some of the stories. What other tools did they have available to them besides spears and potential cooking implements? What else did you find?

Rebecca: There is a massive variety in the stone tools. We say, "Oh, stone tools," but there's huge diversity in how they made stuff, and what they were doing with it, for one thing. But, yes. We have some wooden tools. There's not very many of them, because, obviously, preservation is much more rare. So we have spears from a few sites. The Schöningen spears I mentioned do look like throwing spears. There's other sites where they look more like they might be for thrusting.

And there is a site called Neumark-Nord from Germany. It's an interglacial site, where it was warm. And the evidence there for spears is actually the holes in the bones on two fallow deer carcasses, which people have done experiments. Basically, they have to be spears. But they look like they were being thrusted up, from below.

Other than that, we can see there are digging sticks. Those are really interesting, because you think, "Oh, digging sticks. Yeah. Whatever. Whatever." But the same attention that is paid in the crafting of the spears, in terms of the choice of the wood, and the way they actually are selecting the parts of the tree and things like this, we see something very similar in digging sticks. Although, they're not the same period. They're on the other side of Europe.

But it's this attention to the materiality of the wood. With the digging sticks, for example, they're choosing really hard woods, including boxwood. It takes hours to work that. And so for those, we can see they're using fire, and that makes complete sense.

We were talking before about possible culinary traditions in the Mediterranean, in terms of the tortoises and things. I didn't even mention that there's loads of evidence from Mediterranean sites for them eating shellfish and seafood. At some of the sites in Greece and Italy, they used shells to knap to make stone tools out of, as well. So there is real diversity.

Question: Going back to the cultural significance of some of the behaviors that you see in Neanderthals, is there any evidence of foodstuffs being included in Neanderthal graves?

Rebecca: Good question. There is very little evidence of any sort of stuff being included with what we believe to be intentionally deposited bodies. In the sediment fill around a body there might be the odd bit of stone tool, but actually showing that was put in with a body is really, really hard. The one I can think of which may have that is a site called Amud, where there is a young child. This is in the Near East again, and there appeared to be a jaw of a deer that was either laid on the body of this child, or very close to it. It's basically right there. And it was more complete than most of the bones from that surrounding layer, so that's kind of suspicious. But it's that level of evidence that we have. We don't have anything like the graves from the Upper Paleolithic after the Neanderthal, so Homo sapiens people, where they've got loads of stuff with them that was clearly put in with the bodies. There's nothing like that that's as obvious.

Question: I'm always curious about, from behavioral ecology standpoints, looking at potentials for spandrel effects. And I was really interested by the fact that you talk a lot about how really large animals are found near water, or have this water element to it. Are there also smaller kills that are involved there, or is it possible that water was just the easy way to float and move things around? Once you've killed this big mammoth, how do you drag it?

Rebecca: I'm trying to think. Fallow deer were medium-sized. I'm trying to think about the interglacial lake sites. There are other animals at Schöningen. There are medium-sized animals there that they were eating as well. At Neumark Nord, it's a bit of a mix of things. Again, that's medium-sized. There's not super good evidence for them taking on elephants there, although there is elsewhere in the region at the same period.

It may well be that it's also linked with the kind of environments where we get lake sites preserved, and the climatic periods when that happens, which tends to be warmer phase sites. In those cases, lakes and water sources within forests are going to be magnets for all animals. You'll be following the game trails to find the animals there.

It might be something to do with that. That's why the big animals are there, because that's just where all the predators are heading, as well as the Neanderthals.

Michelle Jewell (moderator): Awesome. There are tons of questions here. I can't get to all of them. But folks, you can find Rebecca online on Twitter. Any other places, Rebecca, that you want people to reach out to you?

Rebecca: I mostly am on Twitter. I'm @lemoustier. I am actually on Instagram, but I only just joined, so I'm not very active. I just post pictures on there.

Michelle: Yeah. I just joined TikTok a few days ago, and it's blowing my mind. I know. I know. For those of you who I wasn't able to get to your questions, please reach out to Rebecca there.

Rob Dunn: I will say, too, buy Rebecca's book, because some of these are in there, too. But these are really good questions. Is there any evidence Neanderthals used salt? Why do they go extinct? Why did they go extinct?

Rebecca: Well, I can't do the extinct one in 30 seconds, sorry. But it's probably not because of what they were eating, or that they were rubbish hunters, no. Salt is a very good question. Perhaps the coastal Neanderthals had found out that it tastes quite good. Who knows?

Michelle: Yeah. They're eating shellfish or other marine animals. They must have figured it out from there. How fascinating.

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