Neanderthals were enjoying the finer things in life 250,000 years ago

The old idea of Neanderthals as a species of brutish primitives has already been pretty well exploded, but this is as good a nail in the coffin as any: Neanderthals were treating themselves to fancy foods 250,000 years ago.

That's the finding of researchers Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College and Marie-Hélène Moncel of France's Natural History Museum. The pair examined the residues left on stone tools from a Neanderthal site in the south of France. The Payre site was inhabited 125,000 to 250,000 years ago, long before modern humans reached Europe, which means all behaviors on display here were the work of Neanderthals alone, with no cultural diffusion to help them out.

Analysis revealed these tools still held traces of fish scales, feathers, animal hide, vegetable starch, and wood. That implies a range of behaviors, all of which rely on fairly subtle manipulation of these stone tools and other technology. The scales mean the Neanderthals were able to catch fish while the feathers suggest they were able to obtain birds – neither of which is the large game typically associated with Neanderthals.

However, the presence of small game is indicative of subtler, more sophisticated hunting strategies and, by extension, more advanced cognitive abilities. This is the first clear evidence that Neanderthals were eating these more delicate treats before the arrival of modern humans in Europe 50,000 years ago.

Bruce Hardy adds:

"Neanderthals are often defined by their extinction. Because they went extinct, they must have been doing something wrong. However, as evidence continues to mount that shows that Neanderthals practiced what has been considered an exclusively modern human behavior ... it is important to remember that Neanderthals prospered for over 200,000 years."

PLoS ONE via New Scientist. Image by tepic, via Shutterstock.