Washington, April 24 : A new study on a large, worn Neanderthal tooth has led scientists to speculate that the hominids were highly carnivorous, with a diet consisting largely of red meat.
According to a report by Discovery News, the tooth belongs to a Neanderthal that lived in southwestern France 55,000 to 40,000 years ago.
The study suggested that the extinct hominids mostly ate red meat from extinct ancestors of modern bison, cattle and horses.
"The extinct hominids were not above eating every edible bit of an animal, since they were dining for survival," explained Teresa Steele, one of the study's co-authors.
"While a steak dinner is probably the closest modern comparison, remember too that they were consuming all parts of the animals, definitely the bone marrow and probably also the organs, not just the prime cuts," said Steele.
The new findings also suggest beans, grains and nuts were off the Neanderthal menu.
"We assume that Neanderthals were eating some plant foods, but given the present evidence, these plant foods were not significant sources of protein," said Steele.
She and her colleagues extracted fine powder from an upper right Neanderthal premolar, excavated at a now-collapsed rock shelter called Jonzac in southwest France.
For comparison, they also extracted and analyzed bone collagen from animal remains unearthed at the site. These animals included the Steppe bison, aurochs, ancient horses, reindeer and hyenas.
The scientists focused on forms of the common chemical elements carbon and nitrogen. These particular elements reflect an individual's diet at the time of tooth formation, usually during later childhood.
The research, conducted in the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, matched the Neanderthal tooth isotopes to those found in the large herbivore fossils found nearby, with the exception of reindeer, which appear to have been hyena prey.
Neanderthals, who lived in small groups throughout parts of Europe and the Near East, went extinct around 30,000 years ago, shortly after modern humans arrived on their territory.
The new study therefore reveals what Neanderthals, at least those in southwestern France, were eating fairly close to the time of their ultimate demise.
"The study reconfirms previous studies that the Neanderthals were highly carnivorous and fed primarily on large mammals," said Richard Klein, a professor of anthropological sciences in the Department of Biology at Stanford University.