[Vision2020] The Neanderthals Ate their Veggies, Too

Nicholas Gier ngier006 at gmail.com
Wed Nov 29 10:29:27 PST 2017

Good Morning Visionaries:

For those who do not take the DNews here is the version of last Thursday's
column that will appear in the Sandpoint Reader tomorrow.  The full version
is attached.  You will find two confessions at the end of this version.

Celebrating the Neanderthal genes in all of us,


*The Neanderthals Ate Their Veggies, Too*

            Sometime after I told a friend that I had become a vegetarian,
I saw a new bumper sticker on his truck.  It read: “Vegetarian: Old Indian
Word for Poor Hunter.” For years I’ve been preparing the following verbal
arrows as a reply.

            Of course Paleolithic peoples ate lots of meat, but their diet
was supplemented with roots, fungi, fruit, and other non-meat items. Sacagawea
saved the Lewis & Clark expedition from starvation by providing the men
such nutritious items such as wild licorice, prairie turnips, and wild
artichokes. She also knew of a number of medicinal plants, which we now
have learned even Neanderthals used.

            For 150,000 years the San of Southern Africa, better known as
Bushmen, have thrived on the bounty of the Kalahari Desert.  A 1960s study
measured San food consumption, and only 27 percent consisted of meat, and
the rest was 14 percent nuts and 51 percent other plant foods. Some of the
tasty items include wild oranges, wild mangoes, two types of berries, sour
plums, beans, and melon.

            For years I have been fascinated by the Neanderthals, and I
have a small library of books and articles attesting to their intelligence,
ingenuity, and perseverance in Ice Age Europe and Central Asia.

            Early estimates of the Neanderthal diet showed a very high
level of protein consumption, so high that it would have proved toxic over
time.  The almost exclusive meat diet of the Intuit has a very high fat
content, very different from the lean meat of the megafauna of Northern
Europe. Pemmican, a mixture of rendered fat, dried berries, and pulverized
dried meat, was the main portable food source for North American Indians.

            Biogeologists at the University of Tübingen have done an
analysis of the collagen of Neanderthal bones, and they have discovered
that the diet of these individuals would have been at least 20 percent
plant-based.  Another study of dental plaque from two different sites in
Belgium and Spain shows a dramatic contrast. The Belgian Neanderthals ate
mostly wooly rhinoceroses and wild sheep, while their Spanish cousins
consumed large amounts of moss, pine nuts, and mushrooms. Were these just
“poor hunters,” as my friend’s bumper sticker mocks, or just healthier and
smarter Neanderthals?

            Even more intriguing was evidence that these clever Spanish
Neanderthals used plants for medicinal purposes. One jaw bone indicated
that pain from an abscess had been relieved by salicylic acid (aspirin)
extracted from the poplar tree. The same individual was also treating
diarrhea with a mold that is the source of modern-day penicillin.

            A 2014 study analyzed fossilized fecal matter from El Salt,
another Spanish Neanderthal site. This direct evidence clinched the theory
that our ancient cousins were not exclusively meat eaters. Biomarkers for
meat and plants were found in a 2-1 ratio, and a good deal of this plant
material was from tubers in addition to above-ground plants. Neanderthals
would have had digging sticks in addition to spears.

            One of my favorite *Far Side *cartoons by the ever-zany Gary
Larson is entitled “Vegetarians Home from the Hunt.” It shows a gaggle of
Paleolithic men carrying a carrot the size of a truck. Yes, there were many
huge animals, but there were no mega vegetables of the sort we buy at the

            Writing for *National Geographic*, Rebecca Rupp explains:
“Ancient tomatoes were the size of berries [as I once observed them on a
Galapagos island], and potatoes were no bigger than peanuts. Cucumbers were
spiny as sea urchins; lettuce was bitter and prickly. Carrots were scrawny.”

            We can imagine that Neanderthal males were great grill masters,
but we now have evidence that they also boiled their meat as well. Drawing
on evidence of boiled grains and boiled bones, University of Michigan
archaeologist John Speth believes that this was done in either hide pouches
or birch bark containers.

As Speth explains: “You can boil in just about anything as long as you take
it off the flame pretty quickly,” or a slow boil over coals. He enhances
his argument by noting that Neanderthals must have boiled the pitch they
used to haft their spear tips.

            In addition to worshipping animal spirits, a la Jean Auel’s *Clan
of the Cave Bear*, Neanderthals surely gave thanks to Mother Earth as well.
 So, we can imagine that on an auspicious day of this season, men carved
the meat, the women chopped scrawny but nutritious vegetables, and they
dropped them in a birch bark “pot.” They then would have had a hearty stew
for a Neanderthal Thanksgiving.

Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31


A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they
shall never sit in.

-Greek proverb

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.
Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance
from another. This immaturity is self- imposed when its cause lies not in
lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without
guidance from another. Sapere Aude! ‘Have courage to use your own
understand-ing!—that is the motto of enlightenment.

--Immanuel Kant
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