Teeth hold clues to human success, Neanderthal decline

by Mary Caperton Morton
Wednesday, July 20, 2016

During the Upper Paleolithic, modern humans and Neanderthals coexisted until about 40,000 years ago, when Neanderthals went extinct for unknown reasons. Wear patterns on teeth from both humans and Neanderthals are providing insight into how different dietary strategies may have led to Homo sapiens' success and the Neanderthals' decline.

By analyzing the type and degree of microwear of the tooth enamel of 52 fossilized molars belonging to Upper Paleolithic Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, a team led by paleoanthropologist Sireen El Zaatari at the University of Tübingen in Germany found that Neanderthals seemed to be more specialized in their diet, conforming to reflect their environment. Teeth recovered from individuals living in cold, open steppe environments showed wear patterns consistent with eating mostly meat, while teeth recovered from Neanderthals who lived in more forested habitats showed wear patterns typical of a diet heavy in plants, seeds and nuts.

In contrast, the Homo sapiens teeth showed wear patterns consistent with a mixed diet of both meat and plants, indicating a more generalized feeding strategy, regardless of habitat. The different strategies may point to human ingenuity in developing tools for more efficient harvesting of food.

“We argue that these differences in subsistence strategies, if they had already been established at the time of the first contact between these two hominin taxa, may have given modern humans an advantage over the Neanderthals, and may have contributed to the persistence of our species despite habitat-related changes in food availabilities associated with climate fluctuations,” the team wrote in PLOS ONE.

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