Rebecca Wragg Sykes answers audience questions following her conversation with Rob Dunn on Neanderthal eating habits.
A conversation on Neanderthal cooking, tastes, and the extent to which Neanderthals had local culinary cultures.
Editors note: This publication contains the video of the talk from the Fermentology webinar series, as well as a lightly edited transcript of the lecture.
Join Rob Dunn and Rebecca Wragg Sykes to learn some Neanderthal recipes! Wragg Sykes has recently published the acclaimed and award winning, best-selling book, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, a definitive account of the lives of the Neanderthals based on the most up-to-date archaeological discoveries. Dunn, who has just published a new book with Monica Sanchez about the evolution of flavor and its role in human evolution, Delicious, will talk to Wragg Sykes about Neanderthal cooking, tastes, and the extent to which Neanderthals had local culinary cultures.
Header image: Mammoth from “Prehistoric Races of the United States of America, 4th ed.” (Public Domain)
Rob Dunn: Hey, Becky. I'm really looking forward to talking about deliciousness and Neanderthals, and food and Neanderthals. I've been storing up questions for months, so thank you so much for joining us today.
Rebecca Wragg Sykes: Oh, thank you for having me. It's lovely to be part of the seminar series.
Rob: I wanted to start with some background. When we think about Neanderthals, can you tell us a little bit about how we know what we know about what they ate, and how that changed through time? What kinds of evidence do we now have? And maybe you can also frame which time periods we're talking about.
Rebecca: Neanderthals lived in the Stone Age but they're not super old, we're not talking three million years ago. For Neanderthals, we're really talking about a period beginning around 350,000, maybe 400,000, years ago and continuing through to about 40,000 years ago. After that we don't see them in the archaeological record anymore.
Neanderthals lived through a lot of different climates: super cold, as people might expect with Ice Age animals, but also what we call interglacial periods, just like we're in now, with forests and warm summers. They had very varied worlds. But what we understand about how they survived and what they ate is actually one of the things that has changed massively in the 170-odd years since we first discovered Neanderthals.
That's partly to do with expanding what we understand about the climates that they lived in, and so our expectations of the things they might eat. But it's much more to do with how archaeology as a discipline has exponentially grown and matured, not only for the specific funky techniques that we have now.
Rob: Is there something like a characteristic diet of a Neanderthal day in a particular place in time? What would a day in Neanderthal dining look like?
Rebecca: I think anywhere—anywhere in time or space where they were alive—meat is absolutely going to be a key part of that. There's plenty of caveman cliches in pop culture about Neanderthals. You might imagine them hunting something large and then dragging back a haunch of meat, but the place of meat in their diet was a bit more subtle than that. What we can see is that they were definitely able to hunt really big creatures, including mammoths, elephants, rhinoceros, and horses bigger than the ones that you see in cave art much later. But they also were going after medium-sized game, like deer, and small game as well—rabbits, birds, things like that.
The range of what they ate was large, so that anywhere they were living, they were getting the best out of their local environments. Whether you were in Germany 70,000 years ago and there's a lot of reindeer around, or maybe in Spain 50,000 years ago you would be going after boar and red deer instead, because it's wooded environments. But wherever you are, what we can see is that they not only hunted animals, but they were really quite selective. They would go after the prime-aged animals, basically—the ones that had the best energy return for effort. And once they actually killed animals, we can see that they were really systematic in how they butchered them.
As many people who are into cooking know, some animals have very lean meat, and you need to supplement that with fat, especially for Neanderthals, who had intensive lifestyles and used up a load of calories all the time. We see that they were not just going after the lean meat on a carcass. They were really going for the offal, the brains, and especially the marrow—all the fatty stuff.
So wherever you are in any Neanderthal world, that's going to be a key part of food on any particular day. But what they actually ate each day was probably really, really variable, depending on whether they were moving between sites. The season is really important as well. So it could be something completely different for breakfast one day—if they actually had any breakfast, because our ideas of when one has a meal are quite culturally specific.
Rob: But do you think they were mixing food items? Would there have been a little bit of deer with a berry? Do we know anything about that, or do we imagine that food items were eaten individually, like we see with some hunter-gatherers today?
Rebecca: That's a good question, and I don't think there is any evidence directly for any mixed food items. We haven't found a smear of sauce with two different ingredients, for instance. But we do know that they did understand about mixing substances, and they had recipes of other material. We can see that they made pigment mixes, for example, with two or three different ingredients, different kinds of pigment and crushed up rock.
In some sites, we can see Neanderthals were not just making tools out of stone, but they had multi-component tools where you'd have stone stuck onto a wooden handle using an adhesive. We have a site in Italy that was relatively recently found, where they are mixing a conifer resin with beeswax for that adhesive. They understand the concept of mixing two different materials for a new result, so I don't see why not.
Rob: In your personal relationship with Neanderthals, do you imagine the Neanderthals putting flavor first sometimes? Did they care about flavor? Do you think it figured into choices?
Flavor is, obviously, the thing that Monica and I have been thinking about so much, so it's our biased perspective on the whole world.
Rebecca: Oh, yeah. As you guys argue in the book, flavor and deliciousness are basic survival. It's about being a creature with a body with senses, and the ability to have emotional reactions to your engagement with the world. So it would surprise me if Neanderthals didn't do what we see plenty of other animals do: focus on things that make them feel good. That can be basic stuff, like you don't like being cold so you wrap and protect your body.
You also don't like eating stuff that's bad for your body. As you know, with all the taste receptors, the amazing stuff we understand about how taste actually works, it's about giving signals to your body as to what's good or not. I'm certain that, in amongst the range of things that they ate, there would have been preferred foods. Certainly fat, I think, would be a big part of that. Fatty foods are very attractive to us. We like sweet things, but also fat just tastes good. If you are a hunter-gatherer, especially in environments where you're moving about a lot and you have a really energy-intensive lifestyle, you can't survive off lean meat or plants. You just can't get enough carbs. You have to have a lot of fat.
I would think that given what we see from the patterning in how Neanderthals are selecting different species between different sites, as well as how we can see that they really carefully chose the parts that they butchered and then took away from their kill sites, that they would have focused in on the parts that were most valuable to them. Taste must have been an element of that. There have been some suggestions of particular species, like elephants. Elephants have been discussed in terms of their place in human evolution, given the fact that hunting elephants is intimidating, and not easy, but they give a good return, obviously, in terms of the amount of meat you get.
But also they're supposed to taste pretty good, and particular parts, like their foot pads, are supposed to be really quite succulent. There's this cool research that was done looking at baby mammoths, and it would appear that baby mammoths were super-enriched with fatty acids, because of the mother's milk. So maybe baby mammoths tasted especially succulent.
There is a site, a cave, where it looks like Neanderthals were potentially targeting infant mammoths, which is hard because they are very, very strongly defended by the members of the mammoth herd. That's really interesting, and there are other finds that point towards particular selection of species across different sites.
Sometimes it makes sense just because of the environment. Other times you might see one site with loads of rabbits, and another site in a really similar environment where they're not doing that. Is that seasonal, or is it something about preference?
Rob: We love the mammoth and mastodon flavors. We talk about it a great deal, and Ran Barkai's work on this is really interesting. One of the things that's always fascinated me is a lot of the later cave art—ancient modern humans, not Neanderthals—where you get baby mammoths that look very realistic, but then they have these giant feet.
Rebecca: Yes, balloon foot.
Rob: Is this just a menu? Is this just, "Oh, look at the baby mammoth.” And then, “the feet taste so good.”
Rob: But to go back to one of your other points, Becky, about this variation from place to place, one of the things that I became obsessed about when writing Delicious was that if you look from chimpanzee population to chimpanzee population, you see differences in their culinary traditions, some of which seem to relate to their environment. So if you live in a savanna, you do different things than if you're in a forest.
But you also see differences that don't seem to relate to the environment. At Gombe, where Jane Goodall worked, the chimpanzees eat two species of ants. At Mahale, which is just 70 kilometers away and the same basic habitat, they eat totally different species of ants, and that's persisted for almost 50 years now. In the chimpanzee literature, they really look like culinary traditions that are not adaptive. They have to do with what your people do—in the Southern way of using that word, in this case for chimps. Do you see any evidence that some of the culinary differences among Neanderthal populations don't just relate to the environment, but that they might, instead, relate to traditions? Is there any way we would know?
Rebecca: It's really hard to say that for sure with Neanderthals, largely because the time scales that we deal with are different. At Gombe you can sit and watch chimps for 50 years, and you can see the generational changes and track that. And you know it's one group. For Neanderthal sites, we are looking at particular points in the landscape which were probably different slices through time. Some of those were definitely connected to each other, but it's really difficult to pull those out and say, "Oh, yes. This is a site where we have a layer that's a meter thick, and we have occupation phases through that layer." But is that the same group coming back through generations, or is that different groups using it for a while and then leaving and a completely different cultural group comes in?
We can unpick that a little bit with the stone tools. If, technologically, the stone tools don't change, then that suggests maybe it is the same group. But you have to be really cautious about it. But I think, at a broad scale, there are maybe two or three things that might jump out, in terms of particularities. I already mentioned some sites in northern Spain where there's a lot of red deer hunting. At one of these sites, there's quite a lot of rabbit-eating and no birds. But the other site, there’s none. There's no real small game at all. It doesn't look like the time of year that they were being occupied was that different. And yet, there is a wild cat that's eaten in one phase of this site. So chronologically they're not exactly the same, but there's definite, different focuses. And that might be to do with traditions, just what is done, as you mentioned.
Another nice one that's weird is another Spanish site called Cova Negra, where there's a lot of birds that are eaten—loads of different kinds of birds. Not many of them, but a variety of them, and they're quite small, like magpies and European rollers and partridge, and things like this. But there's also a few really tiny birds, like blackbirds or swifts.
And we can see butchering on those birds on their legs. This doesn't look like a site where Neanderthals were starving and they were forced to eat that, so is that because that's just what Neanderthals there did? I was wondering, and I muse on it in the book, that maybe this is something to do with how hunting is learned.
If you look at some ethnographic contexts, small bird hunting is one thing that children do, because it's easy. They can go off, they can find the little birds, trap them, and they can learn butchery that way. So maybe weird things are also connected to the social context, and who's actually doing the hunting and the gathering, who is where in the landscape, and their skill level.
The other one I was thinking of is tortoises. Neanderthals lived in a range of environments, some of them warm and dry, including in the Mediterranean where tortoises are a native species. There are actually quite a few sites with tortoises. In some of them, they seem to be really quite a focus. There's a cave from Portugal, Gruta da Oliveira, where through multiple levels there's at least 80 tortoises that have been butchered. There is some evidence from that site that they were actually over-hunting, and that the size of the tortoises through time, as you go up, gets smaller because they're not getting enough time to breed and grow to their proper size.
At that site and various other sites where we see tortoises in the Mediterranean, there seems to be a common way of cooking them. You flip them upside down and roast them in the shell, and then you can tear off the legs—it sounds a bit gory—and slice out the meat. Is that actually a tradition, when we're actually talking about different peninsulas of land in the Mediterranean? It's very hard to say. Maybe they're just hitting on things that make sense, and that's how you cook a tortoise. Maybe that's one thing that Neanderthals from different parts of the Mediterranean, if they met, would say, "Oh, I know how to do that. We do that, too."
Rob: There are a bunch of places in the book where I took the book around and said, "Oh, you’ve got to look at this. This is crazy." The tortoise section is one where I did that. The book is wonderful, but it has these things that, even though I've been thinking and writing about Neanderthals, are just totally new and hadn't occurred to me at all. The tortoises was, for sure, one of those.
You mentioned cooking the tortoises. As I understand it, there are these phases and places where it looked clearly like Neanderthals are cooking, but then other places and times where it's more ambiguous. What is your take on how consistently Neanderthals were controlling fire, and if they weren't always using it, why not?
Rebecca: It's about whether they could produce fire. There is a particular phase about 80,000 years ago when it's cold, it's a glacial period. There are some sites, in France in particular, where it's been pointed out that before and after this phase there is fair amount of charcoal and hearths. But during this phase, when it's colder and you would think that there's going to be a lot of fire, there isn't a lot of evidence for it at all. So it's been argued that maybe they didn’t know how to make fire, maybe they just forgot how to do it, or there just weren't a lot of wildfires so they couldn't collect it.
Personally, I don't think it's that. I think there is enough evidence to show that they understood how to control fire in quite a sophisticated way. There's also evidence linked to traces on stone tools themselves, which look a lot like they're being used to strike a light. What I think might be happening is that the way they use their sites may have been changing during colder periods. Although it might not make sense, it's possible that what they were doing and where they're cooking things changes, and they're actually out in the landscape a lot more.
This is a period where we see them doing a lot of reindeer hunting, for example. There are also still indicators of the presence of fire during that period, so it's not that there's absolutely nothing. I think something else is going on. If you have fire at all, it's not that hard to move the fire from site to site. You can take embers with you.
I think what that does highlight, though, is our assumptions about the correct way to eat something. There's nothing necessarily wrong with eating raw food in principle, or even frozen foods. There are cultures that live up in the Arctic in super high latitudes. There are culinary traditions of storing fish in water that freezes, and you just eat it straight out. If that's what you grew up with, that's tasty.
So I think we should expect that there would have been variety. Probably not everything was being roasted on a barbecue in the way that people might think. The possibility of foods being boiled or stewed is certainly something that would make sense for the fact that, across so many Neanderthal sites with the presence of a lot of meat, we see bone completely smashed up, pulverized, and it's the marrow that they want. Especially at living sites, not the killing sites or the processing sites where they take the carcass apart, but where they take all the good stuff.
We can even pick out that in micro layers next to hearths, you can see fatty stuff dripping. Maybe it's to do with the way that they are processing marrow that involves boiling, as well. You can actually get quite a lot of goodness, even out of bone splinters, by boiling it. People always ask how Neanderthals could boil stuff if they didn't have pots, but it is possible to do that. You can use natural containers. You can actually do it with a skull as a bowl, for example.
Rob: We're not recommending that to anyone.
Rebecca: No, no, no, no. Food safety! But you can do it with stone. There are Indigenous American traditions of using bark containers to boil in. The principle is that you don't let the flames get higher than the liquid, basically. You can use animal stomachs, too.
We do have evidence from a Neanderthal from the Near East from a site called Shanidar, where, like a lot of other Neanderthals, when we've looked at the calculus in between their teeth we can pick out little micro remains of food, and that includes things like date palms or plants from the vetch family.
But in particular, we see starch from grass seeds. In this individual from Shanidar, it looks as if the starch grains have been cooked by being boiled, not dry-heated. So that is one of the best pieces of evidence we have that there was some kind of knowledge of how to actually use water as a means to cook.
Rob: That's fascinating. You raise this issue of killing and elephants. This is a Fermentology series, so it seems good to bring it back around to the ferment. As you know, Dan Fisher at University of Michigan has argued that maybe mastodons were fermented by Clovis people—that they were butchered, and then put in ponds. This would have been a way to store them up, to keep them away from scavengers, and to eat them fermented for many months.
There are two questions around this. One is, broadly, what do you imagine Neanderthals doing in those cases when they have surplus food? If you kill a mammoth or an elephant, can you really eat all of it? What do you do with the extra? Is it possible that fermentation was part of their repertoire, and what would we look for if that were the case?
Rebecca: There's a lot of different threads to that. One is that if you put in a lot of effort to hunt massive creatures and then really carefully butcher them, it does seem a bit mad to not use all that abundance that you've just worked hard to get. What we can see from the archaeology is that there is a separation in space between the places that things are killed and initially butchered, and then some of the rubbish that they don't want—the back bones and stuff— are generally left there.
Then they take the good stuff. They might secondarily process that at another place before taking it onwards, or sometimes it goes straight from the kill site to a living site. There's definitely some staging in what happens to their food. We can also see that it's not a free-for-all, it's not like a load of hyenas at a kill site, just fighting each other to get to it. It's really systematic, and it's very selective.
So in that context, the idea that Neanderthals might try to store, or move onwards, the food that they have got several days, weeks beyond, it would make sense in how they just behave, generally. They are after quality. They understand economics, in that sense. But we don't have any direct evidence for that. A lot of the ways of storing food—like wind-drying it, as you would to make jerky—you're just not going to see that, archaeologically. It's really, really difficult. Even making pemmican-type mixes. Again, that comes back to the question, have we got any recipes? Have we got any mixes of stuff in here? Well, we haven't for food—not really.
But in terms of possibilities, can we see context? For example, where you're talking about using water bodies to ferment, where you store the carcass under water, and the oxygen can't get to it, and it keeps for shockingly long amounts of time. There are some contexts where we can see animal carcasses were underwater while they were being butchered, or, at least, partly submerged.
There's a site in the UK called Linford, where Neanderthals came back to. It was just in an open plain, a bend in a river. Nothing special. But over time, at least 11 mammoth carcasses were there. We believe those were being butchered, although there's no actual cut marks on them, because mammoths and elephants have very thick flesh and you don't necessarily get the cut marks. But Neanderthals were definitely there. They were making and sharpening their tools in that river channel. So if those carcasses were underwater and they were coming back over time, that might make sense as a fermentation site. We can see from the insect remains that, definitely, some flesh was exposed, but some wasn't. It’s the same at other sites, as well.
There is a really amazing hunting site from early Neanderthal context called Schöningen in Germany. It's about 330,000 years old. And that's awesome, because it's a lake shore, and it has spears. It has multiple beautiful spears, which look as if they were actually intended for throwing. It's a place where Neanderthals came back to, possibly over a century, maybe just a few decades, but repeatedly, to hunt horses. There are the remains of at least 50 horses along the lake shore, but also in the water.
So they were probably ambushing the horses and driving them into the water, because these were huge horses, slightly bigger than thoroughbreds. They were massive creatures, and you can disadvantage horses in water quite easily. You would think that you would drag, or float, the carcass right onto the shore, but they're not all there. Some of the carcasses are actually in the water, along with broken spears and things like this. Perhaps that's another context that might have to do with storing excess at this locale.
Coming back to the question of traditions, there’s also the fact that this seems to have happened over decades, at the least. That's a known place which clearly is a great place to hunt horses, and that's going to be generational. So there’s the knowledge of a place that's good for hunting, and you combine it with the potential that there may have been food storage of some kind going on.
I don't think there's any great evidence that they were using pits or more sophisticated methods for fermenting food. If you look at the ethnography, there's some really out-there ways of fermenting food—mixing it, putting plants on it, burying it for ages, and all this. We don't really see Neanderthals digging pits very much. At least, the evidence is very, very slim for that.
So I don't really envision that they would do that. But at the places where they actually killed the animals, maybe.
Rob: I guess, too, in your depiction of the horses, it seems very plausible that they would have a good understanding of what happens if you pull the horse out of the water, versus what happens if you leave the horse in the water, and that they were smart enough to control that in some way.
Rebecca: I would think so. Some of the horse remains are on the shore, but some of them aren't. It's very circumstantial. But in terms of the Neanderthal's understanding of planning ahead for the future, that's really what fermentation is about, isn't it? It's about expecting that you're going to come back to a place. Because we have to remember they're very mobile, and they don't seem to have really been living anywhere more than few weeks, at most.
So if you're fermenting, and that's a process that takes many weeks, months, then we would have to assume that they were expecting to return to a particular place over a timescale of, maybe months, half a year, or more. Although, as I said before, when you're talking about processes that were happening 50,000 years ago and our time resolution is difficult, what we can see is that, even really very small little rock shelters and things like this, were still places they persistently returned to.
So I think the idea that they would expect to return somewhere, and that there may have been resources left in that place for a future return, is possible. Although, the evidence is quite minimal, and you've got to pick it out.
Rob: I think that takes me to my last question, because suddenly time has passed very quickly. This is a two-parter. First, I think one of the things that, to me, your book does so powerfully is to breathe humanity back into Neanderthals. I'd like to hear you talk a little bit about what to you, personally, most strikes you in terms of their humanity, in terms of their Neanderthal-ity?
And then, related to that, what do we know and think now about whether they were speaking to each other, and what they might have been saying?
Rebecca: It's always really difficult, because what makes us human is one of the biggest questions. In terms of things that make us different to other animals, even chimpanzees, it's generally to do with a hyped-upness in our cognition, or our interaction with materials. But in terms of people feeling an emotional connection to Neanderthals, or humanity in that sense, we can see some degree of that in bonobos and chimpanzees in the intensity of their emotional bonds with each other.
Bringing it back to the question of food and plants and things, there's long been debate over whether Neanderthals cared for each other, what's the evidence for any kind of medical care, and things like this. That's a really complicated topic, as everything is with Neanderthals. But what we can see is that they had lives that were tough. You see a lot of injuries and things, but not that much more than in comparable hunter-gatherer populations. People fall over a lot. It's difficult to hunt. There's not much strong evidence for violence between individuals. But what we can see is that, among individuals where there were severe injuries, like a broken femur or a really bad head injury, those individuals survived after those injuries. They died of something else some time later. There's a very famous Neanderthal, again, from Shanidar—a different one than the one I mentioned before—who had some terrible calamity befall him. He was really battered down one side, had a limp, was missing his lower arm, and all this. But he still survived, and must have been provisioned with food in some way, by group members I would think.
But the question of whether they care for each other ties back into plants because of the work with the calculus between the teeth and pulling out different kinds of plants. Yarrow has been found, for example, and it's been claimed that perhaps it was actually for medicinal purposes. As you talk about in your book, the issue about taste reception and perceptors, and what chimpanzees do, sometimes it's to do directly with health.
With plants, it's always tricky, because some of those are also actually used as herbs, just for the taste. The yarrow is, it's in medieval recipes. Yarrow goes great with fish. We have to be careful how much we are trying to project onto the data.
But in terms of the basic evidence for care of individuals, I would expect that Neanderthals were far more similar to us than what we see in chimpanzees. They recognize distress, and they will try and groom an injured individual, but there's not a lot of evidence for actual care, or bringing loads of food. Unless it's an infant, which you would expect. It's complicated.
Rob: That's a good answer. It inspires empathy in me—Neanderthal empathy.